There’s a concept that we talk about in ministry and relationships: being fully present. I think of the smart-phone commercial where a guy and a girl are on a date, and the guy is watching a basketball game on the sly, but can’t keep himself from bursting into cheers while the girl is trying to have a “fully present” conversation. It hit me this morning in a moment in which I was not fully present to my wife how rarely we are fully present to God. Since I’m always thinking of ways to translate the gospel into paradigms that might resonate with people in a different way, I wonder whether we can describe eternal life as the state of being fully present to God while sin refers to the deeds and attitudes that sabotage our capacity as individuals and a community for full presence with God.
Some Christians aren’t going to like to see sin or eternal life described in this way, because it sounds too therapeutic; i.e. it sounds like something an “atheist psychotherapist” would come up with (because all psychotherapists are atheists). I was having a conversation with a friend recently about a particular sin. He shared that he was able to overcome this sin when he understood how much God hated it. I don’t disagree that God hates my sin, because He hates anything that damages the objects of His love. But I have been contemplating the usefulness of framing it in that way (amen if it works for people who are wired differently than me!). I have always operated under the assumption that God’s grace is what creates the space by which we are able to be honest about our ugliness and receive the support to embrace God’s healing and allow Him to crucify our sin. As we grow in our intimacy with God, we grow increasingly intolerant of our sin, but His grace is what cultivates this deeper intimacy.
I’m trying to picture the alcoholics anonymous meeting where the facilitator blows up at Kenny who keeps on having relapses and throws a chair at him, yelling, “I hate it when you do that!” Maybe that’s what Kenny needs to get over the hump (seriously; I don’t know how these things work). But when I have experienced other people hating something I’ve done and raking me over the coals about it, it’s a lot harder to hate it myself because I have to fight through the feeling that I have been victimized. This happened a lot when I hung out with the radicals in my early twenties and I was (or felt like) the scapegoat for all their rage against rich white guys.
What causes me to be “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37) like the audience of Peter’s first sermon is when I see, in a way that can’t be spun as my own victimhood, that something I’ve done has crucified Jesus, whether it’s the pain that it caused another human being or the disgrace that it caused to the name of Jesus. What makes me hate my sin is the thought that Jesus is being railroaded, pushed aside, ignored, and abused while I’m trying to “do church” around Him, or even worse worshiping myself and all my brilliant ideas. But the reason I hate my sin isn’t because the sky bursts open and a mean drill sergeant jumps out and screams in my face about how I’ll never “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9) if I keep on doing the things that I do.
I’ve been thinking about the meaning of that phrase a lot: inheriting the kingdom of God. It’s what several Pharisees asks Jesus about (though they say “eternal life”); Paul uses it in several places. If this inheritance describes a reward for behaving rightly, then that pretty much torpedoes the core evangelical doctrine of justification by faith in which Christ’s faithfulness is the only source of our justification, which is given to us as a free gift for the word grace to have any meaning at all. That’s what leads me to interpret the phrase mystically (to use another word that makes certain people cringe).
When I am fully present to God, I inherit the kingdom of God. God is always waiting for me in His throne room like the father waits on the porch for his prodigal son to come home. He is constantly sending His angels to summon me. And the more I am buried in sin, the more I am completely tuned out to their presence. Or let me put it differently: I’m actually standing in the throne room with God everywhere I walk but all my tacky idols are brighter and louder than He is and they’re stacked up in front of Him so that I can’t see Him. At least in my field of vision. When God helps me knock over some idols through my fasting, I see that the majesty of the One I couldn’t see is so much more immense than anything else I had been worshiping.
We have laws against texting and driving. I think many of us spend life texting and praying to the degree that we have any prayer life at all. And when I say prayer life, I’m not just talking about the perfunctory mealtime or bedtime one (though I can’t even seem to remember to pray before I go to sleep many nights). I’m talking about what a monk named Brother Lawrence called “practicing the presence of God.” Being fully present to God at every waking moment (even though you never will be completely). If you have a regular rhythm of talking to God, then God will make Himself intimate with you in your thought life as you’re going about your day. It requires discipline, which is something I sorely lack.
The funny thing about fasting is it’s actually a lot easier than keeping a schedule, establishing a routine, and all the checklist kinds of things that other people are so much better at than I am. If you want to fast, you just don’t eat. When I am fasting in order to consecrate a day for God, my hunger becomes an awareness of His presence. Often I “fast” without meaning to because I forget to eat lunch. Yet when I do that, my hunger just becomes part of my spiritual turbulence. In fact, hunger through negligence is a sin, because it becomes part of the spider web of distractions and anxiety by which I disinherit myself from the kingdom. If your body is God’s temple, then you not only need to temper it; you also need to take care of it in a way that isn’t overly self-indulgent. What I often do is abuse my body in both ways: forgetting to eat one day and eating gluttonously the next.
That’s kind of why I started fasting, because I felt like such a disgusting hunk of flesh. I was hoping when I started that it would make me more disciplined and dial back my slavery to my anxiety and the urges of my flesh. It hasn’t necessarily done that directly. And if someone’s looking at this getting ready to lecture me on works-righteousness, no, I don’t see this as a technique for making myself better; it is putting myself in the presence of God so He can work on me. I do think the fasting does impact my discipline indirectly by making me long for it through the taste of the kingdom that I receive.
What I can testify is that the fleeting moments in which I have been (almost) fully present to God have been truly ecstatic in the real Greek sense of the word: ek-stasis (out of body). The thing is we were created to be ecstatic creatures, dancing in a light that pulls us out of ourselves. I continue to agree with Alexander Schmemann that humanity is most fully itself in the state of worship (homo adoranis). So be fully present not only to God but to the people through whom God shines since all of us have been created in His image.