With all the talk in Desiring the Kingdom about how practices matter and how the things that we do aim our hearts and help to shape and form who we become, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about my practices and habits. I've thought about what I do that's good (and bad), and what I do not do that perhaps I ought to do. I've thought about whether the way in which I do things matters. And these are admittedly good thoughts to think and it's important to know what one is doing. But there was a huge piece missing that has now fallen into place and it makes all the difference.
What is this big piece? Well, the title of my post really sums it up: what it all boils down to is not what we do, but why we do it. In other words, the point is to know Christ, and to spend our lives continuing to deepen that relationship. (That may seem obvious to you, but I have a tendency to be fairly dense and I often miss big points that everyone around me can see.)
It may seem like I'm saying that our actions don't matter much as long as we have a relationship with Christ. But in fact, I'm trying to say exactly the opposite. Clear as mud, right? What I mean is this: in order to have that relationship with Him, we must do the things He asks us to do. What He asks us to do is summed up in His own words:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.
I recently read a passage in Paradise Lost when Adam talks about his reaction when he first became aware that he was alive and he speaks to the world around him saying,
Tell me, how may I know him [my maker], how adore,
From whom I have that thus I move and live,
And feel that I am happier than I know.
Adam immediately turned toward his maker with awe and wonder and desired to worship. Worship in spirit and truth is a turning toward God and a forgetting of self, and even allowing one's self to be filled with Him. That very turning toward Him also implies a turning toward my brother because the overflow of love needs an outlet.
One aspect of the overflow of love that I just mentioned, that I almost always neglect in my own thoughts, is that God desires to have a relationship with each on of us as well. The first overflow of love comes from Him. He wants to know us and to pour out His love on us. We are, after all, the children of God and He even says,
Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
He is already there, pursuing the relationship with us. What remains then is for each one of us to open the door so that He can come in.
So, how do we open the door? How do we love the Lord with all our heart, and with all our soul and with all our mind? How do we show that love? What does it look like? How do we have a relationship with God? (I certainly don't claim to have definitive answers to these questions. I am a stubborn sinner who would rather cling to my own self love than to love God. But I have a desire to love Him, and so I am compelled to think about these things and at least try to follow them in order to begin establishing that relationship that I desire to desire.)
Three things immediately come to mind when I contemplate this: prayer, fasting and alms-giving. There is so much to be said on each of these topics and I am most definitely not qualified to tell others how to pray or how to fast or give alms. But I point this out because it is clear that these are things that Jesus expects from those who serve God. He clearly says "when you pray... when you fast... and when you give alms." (see Matthew 6:1-18)
Why should I pray? To let Christ into my heart. This one is fairly easy to see in its application. When I think of prayer I think especially about the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) and how living ceaselessly in the presence of God can make it possible to live in the Kingdom here and now.
The relationship of fasting to knowing Christ may be a little less obvious, so I'll take just a minute to elaborate. Fasting is about self-denial, or learning to say "no" to self. Denial of self is important because when we say "no" to ourselves we are then saying "yes" to someone else. It brings about a turning toward the other, which in essence is turning toward Christ. We have to move outside of self in order to meet and love our neighbor.
Which brings me to alms-giving. Giving of alms is a service to God Himself. When we turn toward our neighbor we meet God, in whose image we (and our neighbors) are made, and when we give alms, we are showing God our love for Him. He allows us to serve Him, even though He has no need of our gifts at all. In fact all we have to give is what He has given us to begin with.
If we do what He has asked of us, the doors of our hearts are opened and He is able to come in. He loves us so much that He never tries to force His way in; He waits patiently until we choose to open the door. He will never stop waiting and knocking, but it is up to us to let Him in.
And that brings me back to where I started: the things that we do matter because they either take us deeper into relationship with God or they turn us away. And when we do the things that He asks, they don't matter as ends in themselves, they only matter inasmuch as they help to deepen our relationship with our Maker. It no longer is a question of what we can do in order to be better (whatever that might mean), rather the question becomes a matter of love. I do not fast, or pray or give in order to fulfill an obligation; rather those things become a natural outpouring of the relationship between myself and my Maker.
As I re-read some of what I've just written, I realize that I've already said some of this using different words. But I was not thinking then about how God wants to be in relationship with us. When Jesus came He said again and again that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. HE was there and if they could just repent of their obsession with outward forms, they would finally be able to meet face to face the One who ought to have been the object of all their practices.
Having a desire for the kingdom is a good beginning, to be sure, but once that desire is there we must then behave in the ways that will allow Christ to enter into our hearts so that we can not only desire the kingdom, but actually dwell in it.