October 23, 2017

Little Brave Unselfish Things

Florence Allshorn

Florence Allshorn

Love has awakened extraordinary energies in him that he himself didn’t think he was capable of.

• Michel Quoist
Keeping Hope

• • •

There is one thing people fail to understand who speak disparagingly of “good works” in favor of “faith alone”: any deed done in love cannot, by definition, be done for the purpose of earning God’s favor. If one acts in love, there is no thought of merit.

Now I know that many in the “faith alone” crowd will counter by speaking of the deceptive depravity of human beings. Our motives are always mixed, whether we realize it or not. By nature we are sinful, and all our works are tainted by sin. God knows our hearts; we don’t. Even our most righteous deeds appear as filthy rags to him. Yada yada yada. I’ve made all those arguments and a million more.

I have come to the opinion that God doesn’t parse things out like that. I don’t think God demands an utterly sterile inner environment from us before we can do genuinely good acts that bring healing to others. If we love our neighbor and act for his benefit out of that love, I believe God counts that (not that he’s keeping score either). Just love and act! for heaven’s sake.

On the other hand, yes, I’m absolutely sure I can never fully understand my own heart and motives. But I know that scripture tells me “faith working through love” is God’s design for those who follow Jesus (Galatians 5:6). And it is this which is directly contrasted with the kinds of “works” Paul wrote so vehemently against — works which represented Jewish boundary markers defining who was in and who was out of the covenant people (in this case, circumcision). Faith working through love has nothing to do with “works” of merit designed to earn God’s favor.

Paul writes elsewhere that this kind of love is the goal of Christian instruction (1Timothy 1:5).

Florence Allshorn was an Anglican missionary to Uganda in the 1920s. She faced so many challenges in her work that on one occasion she wrote, “I need God so much here. Everything is so difficult.” But there was one challenge above all, as her biographer writes:

Far the most acute struggle for Florence, however, was in the sphere of relations with her fellow-missionaries. She had written before leaving Sheffield that love was something so big that she had never touched it. By far the most important event in her four years in Uganda was that she was brought face to face with the meaning of love.

Allshorn was the eighth young missionary who had been sent to the station where she served, and none of those before her had lasted more than two years. A strained relationship with another missionary was leading Florence to the same point. One day an old African matron came to her while the young girl was crying in near despair on the veranda. The woman lamented that she had watched missionaries come and go for fifteen years, but none of them had made a difference. Allshorn reports that this brought her to attention with a bang. The old woman had set up a mirror, and immediately Florence saw where the real problem lay.

I was the problem for myself. I knew enough of Jesus Christ to know that the enemy was the one to be loved before you could call yourself a follower of Jesus Christ, and I prayed, in great ignorance as to what it was, that this same love might be in me, and I prayed as I have never prayed in my life for that one thing.

…I suddenly realized that it didn’t matter two hoots what happened to me; the only thing that mattered was what happened to God and the other person. From that moment everything changed. I stopped bothering about myself. And though it often wasn’t easy, we came to fashion a good working sort of friendship. We both enjoyed books and could share many together. Gradually the whole atmosphere of the place altered. The children felt it and began to share in it, and to do little brave unselfish things that they had never done before.

• J.H. Oldham
Florence Allshorn

Did you notice these profound words? — “I knew enough of Jesus Christ to know that the enemy was the one to be loved before you could call yourself a follower of Jesus Christ.” This woman of profound faith knew — from Jesus — that “faith” is rooted in orthopraxy — faith working through love.

It’s time to depart from the company of the theological analyzers and get on with the business of practicing love. What power there might be in a few “little brave unselfish things.”

“Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1John 3:18).

Comments

  1. Just love and act! for heaven’s sake.

    Very similar to the practical advice I got in my Sanctification class in seminary – the only thing worth remembering in the whole course. The professor (who was very much in the “motives tainted by depravity” camp) boiled the class down to this… “Yes, your motives are mixed. That’s why Christ died for you. Trust Him for the righteousness, and do good anyways.”

  2. I too have come to believe this too; “I have come to the opinion that God doesn’t parse things out like that. I don’t think God demands an utterly sterile inner environment from us before we can do genuinely good acts that bring healing to others. If we love our neighbor and act for his benefit out of that love, I believe God counts that (not that he’s keeping score either). Just love and act! for heaven’s sake.”

    Well said CM!

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Ditto.

      “””I don’t think God demands an utterly sterile inner environment from us”

      ***Clearly*** this is true, look at most of the people in the old testament who are ‘endorsed’ by Scripture. What a bunch of moral train wrecks…. thank goodness.

  3. I suddenly realized that it didn’t matter two hoots what happened to me; the only thing that mattered was what happened to God and the other person. From that moment everything changed. I stopped bothering about myself.

    This is good. It seems to be the pattern manifested in Jesus’ life, and the life of the early Christian community. But perhaps the idea that I don’t “matter two hoots” is not good theological teaching for a wife being abused by her husband, or an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse struggling with deep feelings of worthlessness and shame. And there are other examples, too.

    Perhaps this teaching is not for everybody, and needs to be presented in a nuanced way, so that it doesn’t provide theological cover for those who abuse, and theological quicksand for those trying to find the inner strength to escape abuse. It seems to me that, in these cases, Bob Marley offered good theological advice: “Get up, stand up! Stand up for your rights! Get up, stand up! Don’t give up the fight!” This is loving the neighbor one finds in oneself.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > needs to be presented in a nuanced way

      Perhaps: I doesn’t matter two hoots what happens to me as a result of my own agency [choices].

      I find the context of the woman’s statement clear enough that it does not naturally conflate with lie-down-and-take-it; but I recognize there are no shortage of people [and preachers] who will gleefully sweep away that context and turn the statement into a club.

  4. “Even our most righteous deeds appear as filthy rags to him. Yada yada yada.”

    Now there’s the way to begin the day with a smile. Several commenters recently have spoken of the need for a major course correction by the church. This would be a good place to start. Yada yada indeed. Give me a break.

    • petrushka1611 says:

      I know I’m a day late on this, but your comment, Charles, reminded me of something that’s crossed my mind quite a few times over the last several years.

      Isaiah 64:6 does have a pretty specific context, and I have never come across a single use of it where the writer or preacher paid attention to that context.

      I’ve read several Calvinists who have used it as one of the main proof-texts for Total Depravity, yet the verse was written about God’s chosen people, God’s elect. On the other hand, I’ve never come across a non-Calvinist trying to disprove TD who bothered to point that out in rebuttal. I’ve also heard innumerable non-Calvinist preachers quote it in sermons to convict sinners. Heck, I have no doubt I used it that way myself once or twice.

      The verse–the passage really–also has a poetic, hyperbolic style. This isn’t a passage from a theology book, it’s part of a lament.

      The previous verse even says, “Thou meetest him that rejoiceth and worketh righteousness, those that remember thee in thy ways….”

      So, yeah, I get tired of that verse being used as a steamroller on all kinds of people, too.

  5. “To be just means simply to be with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Other observances are no longer necessary.

    That is why Luther’s expression “sola fide” is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to His life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into His love. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity (cf. Galatians 5:14).”

    These are the words of Pope Benedict XVI as spoken during one of his Wednesday general audiences in St. Peter’s Square during 2008:
    http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/on-st-paul-and-justification

    • I’m in full agreement with this, as are some Lutherans, especially those of the “Scandanavian School” who see union with Christ as the central realty of our relationship with God, which provides, among other things, justification. However, many Lutherans strongly disagree.

      • Hi Chaplain MIKE,

        thanks for responding. I did not know in what light Lutherans saw Benedict’s address, so your response gives me some insight into that . . .

        good to know that, within the Lutheran family, there is room for diversity of opinion, which I consider a very healthy sign among any group of Christian people . . . where there is respect for diversity, there is also dialogue carrying with it a chance for increased understanding of one another’s perspectives

        • There is room for a diversity of opinion among Lutherans depending on the Synod. LCMS & Wisconsin, in my experience, tolerate almost no diversity of opinion.

  6. David Cornwell says:

    “…I suddenly realized that it didn’t matter two hoots what happened to me; the only thing that mattered was what happened to God and the other person. From that moment everything changed. I stopped bothering about myself.”

    Ouch. This hurts.

    It takes one’s mind totally away from the survey of inbred evil and unrealized motive and focuses it on that person standing in the way of you and Jesus. It’s the one who wants to make you quit, or who has caused you to quit already, perhaps quite literally. You can’t see Jesus because he/she is there, in the way, blocking your site and prohibiting your love.

    “and I prayed as I have never prayed in my life for that one thing.”

    This hasn’t happened very often in my life. But once or twice. Once I was still very young I was burdened to pray for a family member, very close to me. Woke up in the night and prayed, for that person, without an idea of just why. This person wasn’t a threat to my spiritual well being, but someone I loved deeply and had a close relationship with. Not until morning, and getting out of bed, did I realize why. I really do not know if my prayer had an effect on him or not, or the way things turned out in a real crisis that morning. But I do know that it changed me.

    But many times there is a person who stands in our way. We very clearly know who that person is, and can discern in our own minds the situation. That person stands, however, between us and Jesus. And it may take a kind of prayer than we normally do not enjoy engaging in [“as I’ve never prayed in my life”] before we can see that person and Jesus standing together. And that person clearly receiving the love of Jesus, a child of God.

    And then….

    • David, I like that visual metaphor of someone standing between me and Jesus and that barrier will only be resolved when I take the person by the hand in love and draw him/her to my side. Then we both stand before Jesus.

      • Yes, that (those) person(s)…. and my big FAT bag of excuses, many of them theological, all of them worthless.

  7. Alison Griffiths says:

    “I knew enough of Jesus Christ to know that the enemy was the one to be loved before you could call yourself a follower of Jesus Christ.”
    I read this immediately after reading a particularly distressing article about the refugee crisis in Europe in a week when the UK news is filled with arguments about what to call these desperate people: economic migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, swarms and what to do about their presence on our shores. News that is dominated by politicians who won’t rise above their own petty little ambitions and ideologies to embrace strangers because they fear what their presence in our society will do. Christians amongst them who want to protect a ‘Christian’ heritage against the reality of offering welcome to desperate Muslims from very different cultures.
    But Love is not confined to those we know and are comfortable with – love is only proved real when it is challenging to love those you consider the ‘enemy’ and love must be demonstrated by actions not just rhetoric. If we follow in the way of Jesus then love has to be modelled on his kind of love. Love also demands sacrifice and is costly.
    Florence puts it brilliantly. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. Interesting that the “enemy” here is a sister in the Lord, not the “world”. How ironic, and how I’ve found it is so often the case.

  9. The Postmodern Quaker put it succinctly:

    You have a heart. Use it.

    https://postmodernquaker.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/the-zen-of-quakerism/

  10. Amen and Amen.
    Thanks for putting some meat in the stew, Mike.
    This post makes me wonder how many times I’ve used theology as an excuse for apathy and inactivity. God help me and forgive me for all the time I waste living alone in my head, rather than allowing Christ to live and love through me.