In my mind, today’s readings from the Daily Office highlight one of those “creative tensions” in the Christian life that can become either a stumbling block or a blessing.
On the one side, we find in the New Testament lesson (1 Corinthians 6:12-20) a call to discipline ourselves so that our freedom in Christ becomes a source of growth rather than an occasion for sin. Paul is talking specifically about sexual immorality; but his point applies more broadly, I think, to the care of our bodies and minds — along with the use of our time and money. “I have the right to do anything,” Paul says, agreeing with his critics that when we become followers of Jesus we’re given radical freedom. But then there’s this clarification: “But I will not be mastered by anything.” It’s true that we’re set free in Christ. However, as Paul says elsewhere, we have this freedom so that we can become “slaves” of God. “You are not your own,” Paul tells us “you were bought at a price;” and therefore, we’re called to discipline ourselves so that every aspect of our lives will bring honor to the One who gave so much for us.
But here’s where the tension comes in. Because so often — when we do start to develop this discipline — we want everyone to know about it so that they’ll be impressed with what faithful Christians we’re becoming. And so, it’s a gift that these thoughts from Paul’s epistle are paired with a reading from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18). There, Jesus tells us: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” It’s a good and expected thing to give, or to pray or to fast (or, we could add, to read scripture, or to journal, or to attend church, etc.). But the goal of such disciplines definitely isn’t to impress others with how righteous we’re becoming. And in truth, the goal isn’t even to produce righteousness within ourselves (as though we could become the people God wants us to be through our own efforts). No, the goal is simply to open our lives up to God — to place ourselves before Him so that His Spirit can do the work of transformation that only He can do.
Of course, it’s all well and good for me to say this; and then, here I am — practicing my disciplines before others in a way that has at least the potential to become more about massaging my own ego than about drawing closer to God. Thankfully, however, God’s Word tends to humble me more than it congratulates me. But still…
May we all desire that “secret mastery” that allows us to live with wholehearted devotion for an Audience of One. But even more, may we desire the One, without whom all our “mastery” is just wasted effort.