On Getting Your House in Order
Most people recognize that to be a human being is to be on a lifelong journey in pursuit of two broad goals: to become the best version of ourselves that we can be and to contribute something of worth to the world around us. We don’t all do this very well or very consistently, but we generally realize that the idea is to try to leave the world a better place than we found it and to become a better person along the way.
Of course, as always, the question of how this is done is complicated. Do we start at home and get ourselves in tip-top moral shape before heading out to fix the world? Or do we start “out there” and then assume that personal improvement will be a by-product of all of our heroic good deeds for others? Richard Beck wrote an interesting piece a while back suggesting that it’s more the former than the latter. He anchors his reflection in the order of events in Jesus’ own story. Jesus was baptized first (identifying with sinful humanity) and only then went out to proclaim, embody, and enact the kingdom of God. The personal charge precedes the theo-political agenda, as it were.
Beck reflects thus:
I find this ordering important. First, new human beings, and then the kingdom. Because, can you create and establish the kingdom without new human beings? I don’t think so. We’d reject or hate the kingdom. Thus the need for repentance as a prerequisite for the kingdom. “Repent,” Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is at hand.”
I’m intrigued by all this because it suggests that the most vital and necessary political work that we can be doing right now is becoming human beings. But given the political chaos in our country we keep trying to bring the kingdom first. And we’re failing miserably. Could it be that we’ve gotten the order wrong? Could it be that you can’t bring a new kingdom unless you have the new human beings in place to create and welcome it?
My first instinct was to enthusiastically agree with Beck’s assessment. In a context where we are so inundated with people screaming their religious, political, and ideological agendas at each other and condemning all who don’t share it, we could surely do with a bit more determination to begin the moralizing at home. Perhaps if more people were willing to analyze their own hearts and minds, to ponder the (in)congruence between their message and their mode of delivering it and living it—to repent, to borrow the language of the New Testament—the kingdom might inch a little closer to coming. God knows we can all think of people who are passionately devoted to some cause or another who are insufferable to talk to or be around. Most of us can think of someone who is so busy trying to implement their vision of the kingdom that their personal lives are an absolute mess. We are perhaps often tempted to say (or at least think), “Maybe you should get your own house in order before you presume to go save the world.”
But the more I thought about this, the more it seemed to me that reality resists this kind of straightforward linear analysis. It makes a lot of intuitive sense to say that new humans will be better suited to welcome and advance the kingdom. It seems logical that people who have done the hard inner work of repentance and have made at least a bit of progress in maturity, humility, and grace would be a prerequisite for creating meaningful change in the world. It would be really great if the kingdom of God and our role in its coming could be plotted like a formula: First, produce the new humans and then watch those new humans march out and change the world.
But of course, that’s not exactly how things work, at least not all the time. Sometimes people who are a conflicted mess inside end up playing instrumental roles in the advancing of peace and justice in the world. Sometimes people who are all cleaned up, whose own house is in order, never really get around to making much of a difference in the neighbourhood. And, of course, there is the well-populated terrain in between these two poles where most of us live. We all live in this in-between stage where we pray “Thy kingdom come” even while we realize that we sinners are always at times preventing and at times portending this same kingdom’s coming (sometimes in the same day!).
I enthusiastically affirm Richard Beck’s call to start with ourselves before we presume to go out there and save the world. Particularly in our polarized political climate where his trenchant advice could surely be profitably heeded:
Maybe ignoring Washington to focus on becoming a human being is the most subversive and necessary political work we can be doing right now.
Yes, we could surely do with a more disciplined commitment to pay sustained attention to the log in our own eye before we set to the task of rooting out all the specks in the eyes of our foolish, misguided, quite possibly evil neighbours. This work truly is both subversive and necessary.
But I’m actually pretty thankful that new humans aren’t necessary for the kingdom of God to make its way in the world if for the simple reason that this would rule me out of the proceedings. Despite all my my new human-ish efforts thus far, a sinner, regrettably, I remain. For some reason, from his first disciples right down to the present, Jesus saw (and sees) fit to work through human beings who are always in moral and spiritual transit. I’m profoundly thankful for this. A kingdom that depends on human beings for its coming sounds like something less than the kingdom of God which can only be received as a grace and gift.