Let the Main Thing be the Main Thing / Spiritual Meditations

You’ve probably heard the expression, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” In his book, Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, Adam Hamilton applies this sentiment to the Christian church.  He writes:

The Small Stuff

We struggle to “keep the main thing the main thing.” We make “a mountain out of a mole hill.” While this is a universal affliction of all human beings, religious people excel at it.

Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for this when he said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith. (Matthew 23: 23)

As he faced his own death, Jesus prayed for unity among his followers, knowing no doubt, that they would struggle with their own tendency to argue endlessly over matters of doctrine, and be forever divided over mint, dill and cumin—Jesus’ metaphor for focusing on the irrelevant details (see John 17: 20 -24 below).

The Branches of the Christian Tree

Our desire for certainty, our need to be right, and our tendency to miss the point have conspired to keep Christians from experiencing unity, and instead have led to endless divisions within the Christian faith. In America alone there are over 2000 different Christian denominations and tens of thousands of independent and non-denominational churches. Though all claim to be followers of Jesus, most have divided over matters of doctrine or ways of practicing their faith. Each feels that their doctrine and practice is more faithful than the others.

I love my Roman Catholic friends and my faith is richer for listening to them share their experience of the eucharistic mystery and the traditions of their church. I have a deep respect for my orthodox neighbors and feel a sense of mystery and awe when I worship amid the aroma of incense in their church. I love the Southern Baptist colleagues, whose love of the scriptures and preaching of conversion have left their mark on me. And my Pentecostal friends have reminded me that the Holy Spirit continues to work in unexpected ways I can’t control. While I’m drawn to the United Methodist Church’s attempts to hold together the evangelical and social gospels, and to stand in the center of the theological spectrum as a bridge between the left and the right, I don’t believe all Christians should be United Methodists. In fact, I think Christianity would be the poorer if they were.

The truth is that all the branches in the tree called Christianity are a bit defective. But each adds to the beauty of the whole. What a tragedy if we were to cut off all but one of the limbs. But what riches are to be found if we can humbly listen and learn from one another, appreciating our differences, while together seeking to follow Jesus Christ.

We Create Barriers to Building the Kingdom of God

How often the Christian church’s ability to accomplish good is diminished by its infighting. What if all 224 million Christians in America were working together to shape a nation that looks like Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God, where poverty does not exist, where people practice justice, where love of neighbor is universally practiced! But this will never happen. We are too busy focusing on the nonessential.

Our quest for truth, certainty, purity of doctrine, and our tendency to label others who don’t agree with us, to separate from them and to demonize them, lead us back to black and white, either/or thinking. I am right and you are wrong. I am faithful and you are unfaithful. I am whole and you are wounded or defective. We have “all the gospel” and you do not.

While we may hold fast to our convictions, we must be willing to accept that someone else could be correct, and we could be in error, or we both might be partially correct. Alternatively, we might simply be willing to say, “this issue is not worth dividing over.” This statement has been captured in the well-known quotation, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”

What is Essential to Christianity?

The challenge, of course, comes in deciding what constitutes the central matter, and what is a doubtful or non-essential matter. For some Christians a particular view of the bible’s inspiration and authority is an essential. For others it is a non-essential. For some the mode of baptism is an essential, for others it is a nonessential. The early Christians wrestled with this, and their answers where faith statements captured in the creeds of the church, statements that were meant to summarize what the church believed. These were never comprehensive statements, but an attempt to capture the most important theological issues.

A Call for Humility

What is needed is humility. I appreciate the statement of Sir John Templeton: “humility is a gateway to greater understanding and opens the doors to progress.” Templeton is known for being the proponent of what he calls, “the humble approach” in both science and religion. Humility is essential to Christian faith. And the humility should be rooted in our expanding awareness of how small we are and how truly great God is.

Do we really believe that we can understand the mysteries of God or know fully the mind of God? Yes, the Bible helps us know the mind of God but even here the communication of divine knowledge is limited by language, the ability of the biblical authors to understand and convey God’s will and ways, and our ability to comprehend this knowledge and to rightly interpret the scriptures. Again, with the Psalmist we might say, “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is so high that I cannot attain it.” (Psalm 139: 6).

We are called to humility, and to worship a God that is bigger than we can comprehend.

A discussion of the importance of humility and an appreciation of differences can be found in:

Are We Smart Enough to Judge Others?

Unlock Your Leadership Trait – Humility

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Relevant Scripture

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. (John 17:20-24)

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