Isaiah 58:10: ‘… if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.’
What does Isaiah mean when he uses the phrase, ‘spend yourself’ on behalf of the poor? In other versions it is translated as ‘pouring yourself out’. That approach to life is a tough one in our culture, isn’t it? As Christians, we know this text is here. We read it. We’ve seen it. Very often we are tempted to dilute it under the hermeneutical glare of Israel not worshipping God correctly. We do word studies and contextual considerations. We read commentaries on it. We go to conferences and meetings where we discuss it. Yet, truthfully, how many of us are actively engaged in spending ourselves in this way?
We operate (in the West at least) within a Christian culture that likes to block it’s life into zones. Days off, reading days, retreats, downtime, leisure time, me time, family time etc. In this context, this verse is a slap in the face, isn’t it? The thing is we know what the Bible says. That doesn’t seem to be the issue for evangelicals. Many evangelical Christians are, highly biblically literate (of course, many are not!). Evangelicals love discussing what words and phrases and Bible passages meant in their original context. The problem many have is doing what it says. I love what Kierkegaard says about this intellectual approach to the Bible:
“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we as Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How will I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming to close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
I want to spend some time over the next few Monday getting to grips with how we practically ‘spend ourselves’ in various aspects of our Christian lives. Today, I want to focus on the area of discipleship. For the sake of brevity I am going to point to Acts 17:1-9 & 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10 as two prime texts which indicate the biblical imperative for discipleship within the New Testament community. I think that what we need is less debate and more spending discipleship.
No disrespect to my friends, but when I became a Christian it was an ‘Everyday with Jesus’ (Quiet Time booklet), an ‘AV’ Bible (thankfully swapped for an NIV by a close friend) and a ‘welcome to our midweek meeting’ approach to Christian community. I survived when a wonderful Christian couple (Bernard & Joan) took me into their home and also with the aid of a couple of friends who would answer my questions even when I felt like I was losing it at 2 in the morning. Looking back, I have no idea how I survived (or even how they put up with me!). God has been so good to me. More than once in those early days I tried to walk away from the faith. More than once I wanted to go back to my irresponsible life. The best people who have discipled me didn’t do it through one to one Bible studies, though they greatly helped. They opened their doors to me any time of the day and night when I wanted to sort something out in my head. They gave me time. They let me into their lives. They invited me (literally) to be a part of their family.
Perhaps the biggest failure of the church at the moment is that we talk about making disciples but the danger is reducing it to mean the passing on of information about the Bible in one to one or group study. Oh, we’ll hang out at Pizza Hut or whatever and then call it ‘being missional’ but we find it so uncomfortable when someone really begins to interfere with our precious routines. Christians, very often are extremely good at telling people what the Bible says but not showing them what the Bible means. That’s why moving onto housing schemes/council estates moving in isn’t enough by itself. We need teams of people who will spend themselves on the community. It’s a slog this gig. My assistant, Andy, posted a little something about that this past week. You could invest in a life every day for a year and then they may walk away. It happened to Christ. It will happen to us. Spending in this sense is not investing. We are giving out, often with little hope of receiving anything in return.
Spending Discipleship recognises the complexity of living on a housing scheme/council estate and responds with careful maturity. For example, where do we start with a couple who have been living together for 15 years, have 3 kids, she’s a smack head (Heroin) and he’s addicted to Valium. Both, you suspect, are screwing the social (falsifying social security claims), and knocking out hookie gear (stolen goods) and selling a bit of Cannabis at the weekend. He comes to Christ. He starts coming to church, praying and asking for forgiveness, whilst all this is still going on in his life. Spending Discipleship at this level is so complex because it is not as easy as you think to just instruct him to give it all up. Where do we start? Is it our job to impose moral rules upon him or should we be praying that God by His Spirit would convict him? Surely, we have a responsibility to bring the word of God to bear into his situation? Should he marry the girlfriend or leave her? What about the children? What about a young man who comes to Christ but has two children by two different women? What is his responsibility? How do we disciple Him responsibly and biblically? What does reconciliation and restoration look like for him?
There are hundreds of questions like this. There are hundreds of ‘families’ like this in Niddrie. It takes time for God to do His work. If we are not seeing ongoing fruit then we can be sure that people have not understood the gospel. We just need to support people through it. Biblical disciplers understand the doctrine of sanctification and all its nuances. Spending Discipleship realises that all of these things will only be worked out through living in community and not simply through studying the Bible once a week for an hour. Spending Discipleship means a heavy personal investment. Once we start on the road with a person we have to stay on for the ride. Often, Spending Discipleship will become about ministering not only to them but their family and friends. Remember, Spending Discipleship is a lifetime walk not a 6-month course.
Pray that we would take God’s Word at face value and spend ourselves on behalf of others. Not for their sake but for His glory.