Even traditional and seemingly orthodox Christians get caught up in the idea and ideal of self-expression. It has become the shibboleth of our time. We believe, like the US Army once did, that God wants us to be all that we can be -- but unlike the US Army, we also believe that we get to define what all that we can be actually is. We chafe against the discipline of discipleship. We are scandalized by the scandal of life with boundaries. We are offended by the offense of obedience. We are shocked that freedom does not find its expression in the freedom to be me -- the me I feel at the moment.
An example comes from a wedding I was asked to do. In reviewing the order of service, there were objections to the old fashioned language of submission. Even after the full explanation of this context and the elaboration of the husband loving as Christ loves and the wife loving as the Church returns His love, there was no understanding. God could not possible want me to give up anything for anyone -- not for husband and not even for Him. Sounds crazy, right? But that is the norm among us today -- even among those who do not live in the muddy waters of evangelicalism. We want a God who cheers us on in our own pursuit of what is good, what is right, what we want, what we desire, and what makes us feel good. Even in traditional Christianity there is the presumption that God would not want me to stay in a marriage that I am not happy in or have children I am not ready to raise or keep a child I do not want. You can keep going and fill in the blank.
By the way, in case you are wondering, the US Army is having trouble finding people who want to sign up and who are interested in a structure designed around duty, discipline, and self-denial. Like life with God, we want a military which gives us more than we get or give up. We are all about balance in which the scale tilts toward us -- that is at least part of the reason military service is no longer on the dashboard of the futures of our young people.
How strange it is that we hear so little talk today about discipline and obedience when in the epistles of St. Paul and the writings of the early Church this was a common and ordinary topic! Perhaps that is why the whole topic of the third use of the Law and sanctification in general is absent from sermons and teachings in the typical congregation where the message of the cross and empty tomb remains central. The reality is that God has not set us free to pursue our self-interest. That happened in the Garden of Eden and look how that turned out. When the Scriptures describe those who did what was right in their own eyes, it is not describing something godly and righteous.
When St. Paul recounted his encounter with the Lord that resulted in his conversion, he was very careful. “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance." St. Paul was not set free to pursue himself and what he thought was good, right, and salutary but was under the yoke of the Lord and under the orders of the God who had saved him. He does not shy away from this at all. It is his glory and his only reason for being. But not for him only. It was also what he was called to say and do in service to the Lord. Calling the people not to be true to themselves but, rather, calling them to repentance and to produce fruits in keeping with their repentance.
Perhaps this is, in part, the reason why Christianity has become so weak and fragile, so deferential to science and self, and so unable to respond to this definition by contemporary culture except with a faint echo. We have presumed something of the freedom for which we have been set free which is at odds with everything the Lord has said about discipleship, taking up the cross, and following Him. In any case, our children are under the intense pressure of social media, education, and culture to see everything in their lives through the lens of self-interest and self-pursuit. Unless we recapture what it means to live within the duty that becomes our delight by faith, as people also called not to be disobedient to the heavenly vision of Christ's death and resurrection, we will effectively lose them entirely.
What we are called to be is not ourselves -- the self you find in your heart and mind -- but the children of God we became in the waters of baptism and the hearers who heed the Word of God that gave us faith. Ours is not a vision like St. Paul encountered but the vision of God's Word in which the center is the cross and empty tomb. This Word is our vision to which we are called to live in the obedience of faith. We cannot make ourselves to be the children of God -- only God can -- but it is our calling to strive for and to remain in this life given to us. The question before us is not whether the promise given to us in baptism remains in force but whether we remain in that baptism and, if we have departed from it, whether we will return to it by repentance. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name. That is what we pray as we make our confession. The mark and nature of repentance is that we know the will of God and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we seek to walk in His way, according to that will. It is this for which we pray in the Our Father: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.