The Christian life is best done on the back foot, or with one leg tied up in the air. This point came home to me during a conversation yesterday with Dr. Thomas Hastings, Executive Director of the Overseas Ministries Center in New Haven, Connecticut. We were discussing how theology is best done on the back foot.
I completely concur with this claim, though the statement is seemingly counter-intuitive at best, if not absurd to many. The idiom “to be on the back foot” means to be in a disadvantageous position where one’s opponent gets the better of one. So, why would I say that the Christian life is best done on the back foot?
When I say the Christian life is best done on the back foot, I mean that we must depend upon God, not ourselves. The best way to be on the front foot or the balls of our feet is to be on the back foot, that is, to depend upon God for our adequacy. As the Apostle Paul writes,
Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:5-6; ESV).
While Paul was spiritually prepared and skilled in the presentation of the Scriptures and theological reflection, he was constantly placed in challenging circumstances that kept him on his toes, or, as stated above, his back foot. That is not to say he was back-peddling, but rather on his knees in prayer looking to God’s Spirit for anointing. Thus, when Paul exhorts the Corinthian Christians in 1 Corinthians 16:13 that they should “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (ESV), this was not advice to rely upon their own strength, but the strength and faithfulness of the God who revealed himself in Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Whenever we who are Christians get too comfortable, too secure in our own traditions, Christian thought and life become stale, stagnant and static, not dynamic. Being on one’s back foot entails having to return to Scripture again and again, not being satisfied with Christian answers that may have “worked” yesterday. While the person of Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, our various enculturated construals of Jesus are not. We can learn from the past and draw from it, but never fixate on it.
The early church tried to stay as close to Jerusalem as possible. They had a most difficult time incorporating Gentiles into the faith on equal footing with the Jews through Jesus. It took intense persecution (Acts 7-8), Saul’s conversion (Acts 9), Peter’s vision involving the call to eat unclean food (Acts 10), a council in Jerusalem (Acts 15), and more to help them break out and not fixate on theological and cultural hegemony. What will it take in our day, in our own context?
I have never experienced an anointed moment when everything was working according to plan, where all my bells and whistles and PowerPoint slides were operating perfectly. God often chooses to mess with me and forces me out of my comfort zone to make me depend on God’s Spirit rather than myself. While it does not feel good at the time, and can actually be quite exhausting and humbling, I always come away from such ordeals more creative, more nimble, and refreshed.
This semester, I have the opportunity to learn from a number of Christians from across the world at the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut. While I am serving here this semester as Senior Mission Scholar in Residence, I believe I am going to be stretched by my colleagues from other countries who are serving globally in diverse and challenging missional contexts. They will be used by God to help me become more flexible theologically, and more adept at living the Christian life on my back foot or leg up in the air in dependence on God’s Spirit. Only in this way can I stay on my toes and advance in the Christian life, realizing that my adequacy comes only from Christ.
Many of us who are Christians in the United States often seek to operate on the front foot, seeking to gain the upper hand, positioning ourselves from the vantage point of a muscular Christianity in our engagement with those around us. When we pursue cultural hegemony, it is very hard to live into the reality of the cruciform, all-powerful yet humble reality of Jesus Christ. That is why I can’t wait for Christian America to die, just as I wrote in my first blog post at Patheos several years ago (Refer here). It is not that I want the Gospel or Christianity to die. In fact, the Gospel and Christianity can only really truly live when we, like our Lord, become kernels of wheat that fall to the ground and die (John 12:24). It is only as we die to ourselves and hang in the air with the Lord on his cross (Galatians 2:20) that we get our feet back beneath ourselves. It is the only way for Christians to live.