I commented to a book-loving friend that I felt as if I’d read the same book over and over again throughout 2008. The theme of why the Christian Church (in general, but the American church in particular) has such limited impact on society, and the importance of getting back to obedient discipleship (or apprenticeship) and spreading the message of the Kingdom, are treated over and over, a modern theme and variations. Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren and Dallas Willard–among others–are all preaching this message in compelling ways to Christians, seekers and many who are disenchanted with organized religion.
I decided to begin a new year by trying (again) to read a classic text which has been gathering dust on my shelf while I read all these newcomers: The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. After just a few pages I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Sixty years ago, in the midst of a world war, in a different country, in a different language, and there’s the theme yet again. Is it the most important message anyone can deliver, or am I personally being hounded by heaven? And if the latter, what am I to do about it?
Bonhoeffer makes an intriguing case for the paradox that both the following statements are equally true at the same time:
Only he who believes is obedient.
Only he who is obedient believes.
In other words, obedience is impossible for an unbeliever…and it is nonnegotiable for a believer. Bonhoeffer seems to see obedience rather than faith as the “first” step. Jesus calls, we obey the call which leads to belief which compels us to further obedience and deeper faith.
And so this got me to thinking: I know two young men who once professed belief. Now they deny any spiritual convictions whatsoever. They want to do their own thing. I certainly don’t expect them to “obey” like believers when they don’t believe. But I wonder: is it a measure of integrity that they have jettisoned belief because they see the necessary connection between faith and action? Or are they simply trading one sin (disobedience) for another (dishonesty)–talking themselves out of legitimate faith in order to avoid the guilt of disobedience? Or does it even matter? If they are not obedient, then in Bonhoeffer’s view, they are not believers, period.
And what will make them want to believe? Surely it will be a call from Christ, though who knows how or when it will come. Meanwhile, do they see any Christians being obedient to their faith? That seems to be the recurring question: what has God ever done for you? How is your life different/better because you believe?
And I am chagrined to find that I stumble over the answer to that. One of my resolutions this week is to take seriously Peter’s charge: Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (I Peter 3:15) I’m pretty sure that’s a charge to which I need to be obedient.