The Incarnation and Christian Spirituality
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Christianity is the story of how the rightful King has landed, you might say in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in His great campaign of sabotage.
C. S. Lewis
The most important moment in the birth of a child is the moment when the little one lets out her first cry. It is the vital sign of life. In fact, it used to be the common practice for doctors to help this moment along by holding the newborn by her feet and slapping her backside. While the practice offends some contemporary sensibilities, it served a crucial function. At birth, a baby’s lungs are filled with fluid. The first cry helps expel the fluid and allows the baby to take her first breath. The lungs expand. Oxygen rushes in. Respiration begins. Her life in the world commences with the rhythm of breathing in and breathing out.
We rarely pay much attention to the rhythm of our breathing unless something interrupts it. But this rhythm pulses through every moment of our lives from the first cry of life until our dying breath. The average adult takes between twelve and eighteen breaths every minute, which means the rhythm of inhaling and exhaling occurs more than twenty thousand times every day. The rhythm of our breath is the rhythm of life.
There is a rhythm of life that pulses through the biblical vision of what it means to be human. A kind of breathing in and breathing out. An inhale and an exhale. The breathing in is our participation in the divine life. The breathing out, our participation in the divine mission. The breathing in is intimately connected to our experience of God’s personal presence. It is life lived with God. The breathing out involves our participation in God’s just reign. It is life lived for the sake of the world. The breathing in we often call “spirituality.” And the breathing out we call “mission.” The burden of this book is to show how these two—spirituality and mission—are intimately bound up with one another, like inhaling and exhaling. Further, I will be arguing that the embodiment of this breathing in and breathing out is of the essence of what it means to live a fully human life.
At the heart and center of the staggering story of grace told on the pages of the Bible is the claim that the God of the universe experienced that first rush of oxygen into his lungs when a peasant baby let out his first cry in a stable in Bethlehem two millennia ago. The single greatest difference between Christianity and every other theistic religion is succinctly captured in John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” In the incarnation, Jesus embodied the breathing in and breathing out that constitutes the biblical vision of what it means to be human. In Jesus, the personal presence of God took on our humanity and “made his dwelling among us” in order to make a way for us to participate in the divine life. Throughout his life he modeled what it looks like to live in intimate connection with the Father and dependence on the Spirit. Through faith in his work on our behalf, we participate in the divine life and are filled with the indwelling Spirit, God’s empowering presence. In his incarnate life, Jesus gave us the normative vision of spirituality, of life with God.
So too Jesus came, sent by the Father, to bring the just reign of God into the broken world subject to the reign of sin, death and the devil. The Christian story knows nothing of a detached deity who watches disapprovingly as the world he made spins madly on. As the Christian story goes, God does not stand at a distance merely watching the suffering of his creatures and the brokenness of his world. Instead he enters into that brokenness and takes on their suffering. He becomes a victim of human cruelty and injustice. In doing so he secures a hope beyond the brokenness of this world as we know it. In the incarnation of Jesus, God made his dwelling among us as the ultimate means of accomplishing his mission to rescue and renew his good but broken creation. Throughout his ministry Jesus called people to turn away from their other allegiances and to believe the good news that in him the reign of God had come near. After his resurrection Jesus commissioned his disciples, saying, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Jesus’ incarnate life gives us the normative vision of what it looks like to live into the mission of God, of life for the world.
For the better part of the last decade I have served as a professor of Christian spirituality and a teaching pastor of a “missional church.” In many respects it’s been a great time to be engaged in both conversations. There has been in recent decades a renewed interest in Christian spiritual formation. The popularity of authors such as Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster and the late Dallas Willard has contributed to a resurgence in evangelical spirituality and the rise of a host of new voices who are adding depth and insight to the conversation. These authors have recaptured key aspects of the biblical vision and re covered rich resources from the Christian tradition for the contemporary life of faith.
At the same time the word missional has become an important part of the vernacular of many Christian leaders. Though the word seems to have been around for some time, it came to increasing prominence after the 1999 publication of The Missional Church, edited by Darrell Guder. In that book, a consortium of authors associated with the Gospel and Our Culture Network set out to bring the theology of such seminal missional thinkers as Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch to bear on the North American context. Within a short period of time other strong voices emerged arguing for a complete reorientation of theology and, therefore, what it means to be the church centered around the missio Dei, the mission of God. Mission, they argued, was not just one of a number of things the church does. Mission is at the core of who God is and thus at the center of what it means to be the church.
In my roles as pastor and seminary professor, I have benefitted immensely from the many authors who have contributed to each of these conversations. I’ve read their books, attended their conferences and had the chance to develop personal friendships with several of them. But it has struck me as odd that, with only a few exceptions, these two conversations are being held without reference to one another. Those talking and writing about Christian spirituality are saying very little about mission. And those talking and writing about mission are making few references to Christian spirituality. This leaves both conversations impoverished.
A spirituality that is not inherently missional is a truncated vision of life with the triune God. At the same time, any vision of missional life or missional church that neglects the cultivation of dynamic dependence on and intimacy with the living God runs the risk of becoming mere activism. Spirituality and mission belong inseparably together, like breathing in and breathing out.
The central claim I make in this book is that the great need of the church in North America today is to recover a spirituality deeply informed by the logic of the incarnation. When I speak of the logic of the incarnation, I simply mean the implications of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ for our thinking about Christian spirituality. The incarnation of the eternal Son, who took on flesh to accomplish our redemption, is a unique and unrepeatable event. But this event has far-reaching implications for how we understand what it means to be human and what God is up to in the world. The doctrine of the incarnation, affirmed and cherished by Christians in every time and place, needs to be translated into a corresponding way of life for those of us who claim to worship and follow the one who took on flesh. As Jacques Ellul has suggested, “A doctrine only has power (apart from that which God gives it) to the extent in which it is adopted, believed, and accepted by men [and women] who have a style of life which is in harmony with it.”
This book is about discovering that “style of life.” Contrary to how some Christians choose to tell the story, Jesus did not come into the brokenness of this world just to secure for us salvation beyond it. He also offers a profound model for how he longs for people to live in the midst of this world’s brokenness. He presents a model of how to dwell with God in and for the world. This is a book about becoming more like Jesus, about spirituality and mission belonging together like breathing in and breathing out. The logic of the incarnation points us to the indissoluble union between spirituality and mission.
A Christian spirituality that is deeply informed by the logic of the incarnation reminds us:
- We dwell in this world. It gives us a vision of the spiritual life that is profoundly this-worldly, having much to do with the day-to-day realities of life.
- We dwell in this time and place. It gives us a vision of the spiritual life that is inescapably concerned with when we live and where we live, our unique cultural moment and social location.
- We dwell in these bodies. It gives us a vision of the spiritual life that is adamantly embodied; it is concerned with the care of bodies (ours and others’), embodied relationships and bodily engagement in spiritual practices.
- We dwell in this world that God will one day make new. It gives us a vision of spirituality that is deeply attuned to God’s purposes for the world, which involves an abiding concern with the brokenness not only in our own lives but also in the world around us.
As stated above, my central claim is that the great need of the church today is to recover a spirituality deeply informed by the logic of the incarnation, of life with God for the world. That claim is connected to two related claims about the situation in which the church finds itself. The first is simply this: people are thirsty. Deep spiritual thirst—for identity, meaning, security and wholeness—is an inescapable part of the human condition. This deep thirst seems particularly apparent in contemporary Western culture’s current fascination with “spirituality.” If you visit your local bookstore (if you can still find one with bricks and mortar), you’ll find shelves full to overflowing with books on metaphysics, self-help and a whole host of spiritualities—Eastern and Western, old and new. From the sublime to the bizarre, from the ancient to the novel, you’ll find more spirituality than you’ll know what to do with.
Much has been made of late of the so-called “rise of the nones.”2 A recent study by the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project identified “nones” as those people with no particular religious affiliation. The Pew research showed that their numbers have been steadily rising in recent years—so much so that Protestant Christians no longer represent the cultural majority in the United States. An increasing number of people in North America now identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Many are searching, without the moorings of church and tradition, for something to satiate their deep spiritual thirst.
The second claim that informs this book is that the popular version of Christian piety characterizing much of American Christianity is ill-suited to satisfy the deep thirst so many people are feeling today. Christian spirituality is not doing particularly well in the spiritual marketplace. In the minds of many, it has been tried and found wanting. But could this be true because Christians in North America have presented a fundamentally flawed vision of what Christian spirituality actually is? Could it be that we have reduced Christian spirituality to a narrow set of beliefs and a seemingly restrictive set of moral rules? Moreover, could it be that even our beliefs and morality have been displaced (at least in the minds of many) by other considerations such as zealous nationalism, partisan politics and an adversarial pursuit of cultural power?
Some are beginning to take notice of how these other considerations contribute to Christianity’s increasing failure to provide a compelling alternative to the popular cultural conceptions of “the good life.” They are beginning to recognize the disastrous effects of this compromised version of Christianity not only on attempts to reach those outside the Christian faith, but even on efforts to pass the Christian faith along to the next generation. The statistics concerning the number of evangelical young people who walk away from their faith after they graduate from high school and leave home are alarming, to say the least.3 These trends have potentially dire consequences for the future of the church in North America. In his book The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons attempts to help the church to name what ails it and to chart a course toward a better future. He writes:
I believe this moment is unlike any other time in history. Its uniqueness demands an original response. If we fail to offer a different way forward, we risk losing entire generations to apathy and cynicism. Our friends will continue to drift away, meeting their need for spiritual transcendence through other forms of worship and commitments of faith that may be less true but more authentic and appealing.
One crucial aspect of the task of offering an “original response” to the present crisis is the recovery of a robust vision of Christian spirituality, a spirituality deeply informed by the logic of the incarnation. To be clear, I am not advocating such a view because I take it to be a more “marketable” approach to Christian spirituality or a more effective “strategy” to reach lost people in the kind of world in which we live. I’m advocating it because I believe it captures the essence of the biblical vision of what it means to be fully human. But if that is the case, it is critical for us to recover if we hope to correct the errors of the past and offer a more compelling way forward.
Missional Spirituality/Spiritual Missionality
So what I am advocating in this book is a “missional spirituality” or, if you prefer, a “spiritual missionality.” Insisting that these two go together like breathing in and breathing out helps us overcome the potential pathologies associated with both spirituality and missionality. The ancient myths of Narcissus and Prometheus parallel the pathologies toward which both spirituality and missionality can tend. The myth of Narcissus tells the story of an exceptionally handsome and conspicuously proud young woodsman who is lured by Nemesis, the spirit of divine retribution, to a pool where he sees his own reflection and falls in love with it. Consumed by the beauty of his own face, he cannot look away and is doomed to live out the rest of his life fixated on his own image. The story of Prometheus, on the other hand, tells of a Titan of great strength and ingenuity who steals fire from the gods to give to humanity, enabling the progress of human civilization. His actions outrage Zeus, who sentences him to eternal torment. In the classical tradition, the story of Prometheus came to be associated with human striving and the danger of overreaching our limitations.
Spirituality, with its emphasis on “the attention we give to our souls,” can easily devolve into a form of narcissism. The attentiveness to the interior life characteristic of many approaches to spirituality can easily lead to self-absorption. As David Augsburger has suggested, “In much contemporary usage, spirituality is a path of self-discovery. It is the secret of releasing and unfolding a deeper, wider, richer, gentler self. It promises, ‘You can be the you you long to be.’” As Augsburger’s observation makes clear, many contemporary expressions of spirituality are ultimately oriented toward the self. The contemporary cultural environment in which such spirituality is pursued only exacerbates this narcissistic tendency.
Social observers Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell studied the results of 16,275 college students who took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1979 and 2006 and found a rapidly advancing upswing in narcissistic traits over the span of those nearly thirty years. “By 2006, two-thirds of college students scored above the scale’s original 1979-85 sample average, a 30% increase in only two decades. One out of 4 recent college students answered the majority of questions in the narcissistic direction.” They go on to point out, “The upswing in narcissism appears to be accelerating: the increase between 2000 and 2006 was especially steep.” According to Twenge and Campbell, Americans now suffer from narcissistic tendencies in epidemic proportions:
American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy. We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with $11 trillion of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with the social networking explosion). All of this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins.
The upswing in narcissistic tendencies in our cultural environment, along with its impact on spirituality, is closely connected to what sociologist and cultural critic Philip Rieff identified in 1966 as “the triumph of the therapeutic.” Christopher Lasch, one of Rieff’s disciples, captured the sentiment well, saying, “The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.” This impassioned pursuit of a sense of personal well-being—which has only grown in the decades since Rieff identified it—has become, for many, the “chief end of man,” pursued as an end in itself rather than experienced as the byproduct of some higher end beyond the self.
This cultural trend has not gone without effect on Christian conceptions of spirituality. On the one hand, we can easily veer off into a spirituality in and for the self. By this I have in mind those forms of Christian spirituality that focus primarily on the pursuit of personal wholeness. Much of the popular literature on spirituality tends toward this end; personal well-being, authentic personhood and deep connection with God become the goals we pursue. This type of spirituality tends to focus on the practices an individual can engage in in order to experience the divine and discover one’s true self. This approach to the spiritual life emphasizes inwardness, often giving prominence to those spiritual disciplines that involve withdrawal from the chaos of life in the world and retreat into the quiet repose of the presence of God.
My purpose here is not to denigrate the importance of such practices but to point to the ways in which they can devolve into a spiritually sanctioned form of narcissism. Many popular expressions of spirituality today are deeply self-referential, aimed as they are at greater self-awareness, self-actualization and self-fulfillment. As Eugene Peterson has thoughtfully observed, “Spirituality is always in danger of self-absorption, of becoming so intrigued with matters of soul that God is treated as a mere accessory to my experience.” When God becomes a mere accessory to my own spiritual experience, his image bearers also fade from my view apart from the degree to which they serve or impede my personal pursuits. The quest for wholeness displaces the quest for God and the love of neighbor.
On the other hand, Christian spirituality can also be reduced to a spirituality in and for the church. Here I am thinking of those forms of popular Christian piety that focus primarily on personal holiness. Our focus all too easily shifts to a kind of negative spirituality, intended to provide us with the resources to avoid the influence of the world. The emphasis here is on what one needs to know and how one needs to act in order to be less encumbered by the beliefs, values and practices of the dominant culture. The world is seen as corrupt and corrupting, so discipleship becomes about evading this corrupting influence. Spirituality becomes primarily about behavior modification—in Dallas Willard’s words, about “sin management”—so that we can live more pure and undefiled lives unstained by the world. This approach can reduce spiritual maturity to simply sinning less (or, in its most dangerous form, simply appearing to sin less). Often this approach to the spiritual life presents the church as the place where one finds the resources to live a holy life. Participation in the community of faith and conformity to its behavioral standards become the hallmarks of spiritual life.
Once again, I do not want to diminish the significance of the church for authentic Christian spirituality. My point is simply to name the reality that often characterizes evangelical popular piety. We can live out our Christian lives in an ecclesial bubble, hermetically sealed off from the corrupt and corrupting influence of the world. We may feel better about our lives, our families and our churches, but we will have betrayed our calling in the name of personal holiness.
Of course, the quest for wholeness and holiness are legitimate pursuits. Patterns of growth in wholeness and holiness are vital to any robust vision of Christian spirituality. What I am suggesting is that when these emphases are elevated to the place of prominence that they sometimes receive, the result can be a truncated vision of Christian spirituality, one that is more concerned with getting us out of the world and the world out of us rather than leading us into the world for the sake of the world. As David Gushee has so aptly said,
A socially disengaged spirituality . . . is inconceivable and inexcusable. Just me and Jesus, growing closer all the time, while the world suffers outside of my field of vision, is a way of being Christian that can flow only from cloistered privilege—or perhaps in some cases from such extraordinary personal misery that an inward spiritual retreat is the only path to emotional survival. I fear that in evangelical Christianity these two paths to mere inwardness sometimes converge—the cloistered privileged ones welcome the personally miserable ones and together they (we) escape the world in the name of Jesus.
To escape the world in Jesus’ name is to fail to allow our spirituality to be sufficiently informed by the logic of the incarnation. Christian spirituality in the way of Jesus ought instead to be a spirituality in and for the world.
At the same time, missionality can carry its own pathologies. Missionality that is not appropriately spiritual can degenerate into mere activism. When we engage in mission without a deep sense of connection with and dependence on God, our efforts become Promethean self-assertion and accomplishment. The downfall of both Narcissus and Prometheus was ultimately an exaggerated focus on the self. The “inward turn” can affect missional Christians when the mission of God takes the place of God himself and our participation in that mission becomes central to our sense of identity and value. Gordon MacDonald has identified this persistent temptation among more missionally minded Christians as “missionalism.” Missionalism involves “the belief that the worth of one’s life is determined by the achievement of a grand objective.” As MacDonald makes clear, missionalism is in the end a form of idolatry. Our participation in God’s mission displaces our trust of, dependence on and delight in God himself.
In a much-discussed blog post, Anthony Bradley scathingly criticized advocates of a missional approach to the Christian faith as the proponents of a “new legalism.” Bradley writes,
I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today’s millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that so many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families. . . . For too many millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.
I believe that Bradley’s post is significantly wide of the mark in its criticisms in a number of ways, but the concern that he is raising is not completely unfounded. The call to be unique, special or extraordinary is not what the best advocates of a missional framework for life and faith are saying. Many of my friends who are leaders in the missional church movement do not recognize themselves or their teaching in Bradley’s caricature. But it’s worth noting that what Bradley is saying is, evidently, what some people are hearing. Any call to activism has the potential to sound like a new legalism. That threat should not cause us to abandon the call to activism, but it should come as a challenge to make sure our profoundly important call to missionality does not devolve into a Promethean missionalism and that in our activism we do not fail to attend to God and to our souls.
One place where the tendency toward a kind of Promethean overreaching shows itself is in the ways we sometimes talk about the kingdom of God. Throughout the literature on what it means to be missional there is an intimate connection between the missio Dei and the regnum Dei, between the mission of God and the reign of God. To be missional is to have one’s life oriented toward the reign of God in the world. With Jesus’ incarnation came the inbreaking of the kingdom of God into the dominion of sin, death and the devil. We live now in the overlap of kingdoms. According to the Christian story, there is coming a day when God’s kingdom will come in its fullness and when his reign will be uncontested. In that day, everything wrong will be made right, everything broken will be made whole, and everything marred will be made beautiful.
As Darrell Guder and his colleagues noted in The Missional Church, things get off track when the church begins to speak of “building” or “extending” the kingdom of God. Such language puts the emphasis on our efforts. On the one hand, talk of “building,” “establishing” or “bringing about” the kingdom reduces the reign of God to a social project that we are left to design and implement through our own efforts and ingenuity. Such language overestimates our strength and competence and underestimates the realities of brokenness and injustice in the world. It betrays a distinctly modern hubris foreign to the biblical vision of God’s reign.
On the other hand, to speak in terms of “extending,” “growing” or “expanding” the kingdom of God can tend toward a reductionism that makes the reign of God merely a spiritual reality entered through repentance and faith. Here the kingdom of God becomes synonymous with eternal life conceived of as the hope of heaven after death. Thus, “extending” or “expanding” the kingdom of God becomes code language for intensifying our efforts in evangelism. Here the emphasis shifts from our herculean strength to our effective strategy. The same modern hubris shows up in the confidence we place in evangelistic techniques and technologies. Evangelism gets reduced to a sales pitch dislocated from the embodied witness of the evangelist and the corporate life of the community of faith. Such a way of thinking and talking about the kingdom makes far too little of what the reign of God actually is and far too much of what our strategies can achieve. Both ways of speaking—whether we talk of “building” or “expanding”—tend to focus the attention on us and our efforts rather than the God whose reign it is. This is the Promethean pathology of missionality.
Vision, Practice and Context
There are three crucial aspects of learning to live the missional spirituality—the life with God for the world—that I am advocating: vision, practice and context. In this book, chapters one through four will focus on the vision of life with God for the world. In his book Desiring the Kingdom philosopher James K. A. Smith argues that human beings are teleological creatures. We make our way in the world according to a certain teleos, a specific vision of human flourishing that captivates our affections and imagination. He writes, “Our ultimate love is oriented by and to a picture of what we think it looks like for us to live well, and that picture then governs, shapes, and motivates our decisions and actions.” That vision takes hold in our lives through the stories and models through which it is conveyed. For us to live out a spirituality informed by the logic of the incarnation, we need to explore in detail the vision this way of life calls us to live. These chapters seek to lay out “the vision of God” that gives rise to the incarnation, that guided the incarnate life of Christ and that ought to deeply shape our understanding of Christian spirituality.
Chapters five through nine will talk about the practices that shape and sustain life with God for the world. Importantly, Christian spirituality is not merely something to be understood but something to be lived. Learning to live into the vision involves our participation in a set of embodied practices. According to Craig Dykstra, “A practice is an ongoing, shared activity of a community of people that partly defines and partly makes them who they are.” A certain set of practices has defined and formed the church throughout its history. These practices are not the means by which we transform ourselves, but the “means of grace,” the means by which we pay attention to the Spirit’s presence and open ourselves up to the Spirit’s transformative work. It is only the Spirit’s work that brings genuine transformation in the Christian life.
But progress in spiritual formation does not come by accident or chance. As John Stott has said, “Holiness is not a condition into which we drift.”20 The Spirit’s transforming power is available to us all and comes to us only as a gift. But we have a responsibility to receive that gift, to allow the Spirit to accomplish his purposes in our lives. The Spirit accomplishes his work in us through appointed means, the historical practices of Christian spirituality. In these chapters I will give attention to a “grammar of the disciplines” that ought to characterize the ways we understand and engage the practice of any of the spiritual disciplines, and I will give extended treatment to a handful of selected disciplines that are crucial for us to recover today in our efforts to live into the vision of God.
Finally, living into this vision of life with God for the world requires us to think about context. The “spiritual life” ought never to be isolated from “the rest of life.” This way of thinking leads to a construal of spirituality that is primarily about withdrawal, a kind of spiritual recharge before going out into the world again. Missiologist David Bosch describes the mistake of this way of thinking by saying,
In this view, then, my “true” Christian life consists of those so-called spiritual moments, away from the hustle and bustle of ordinary life. To be sure, all that hubbub is actually anti-spiritual, because it taps my stored-up spiritual resources, it drains my spiritual power away, it is a threat to my spirituality. I would, therefore, much rather live on angels’ food only and have as little as possible to do with the things of this world.
Bosch goes on to articulate a spirituality of engagement that is “allpervasive,” saying, “The involvement in this world should lead to the deepening of our relationship with and dependence on God, and the deepening of this relationship should lead to increasing involvement in the world.” The final chapter of the book, then, will explore the contexts in which this involvement is pursued.
The early Christian theologian Irenaeus of Lyon once wrote, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Jesus is the fully human one who came to bring us life and to show us how to live. As we learn to follow the pattern he left for us—life with God for the world—we learn what it means to become fully alive. We find our stories wrapped up in his story.
Taken from Dwell by Barry D. Jones. Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry D. Jones. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.