As Christians we tend to get things backwards much of the time. It’s only natural, I guess. We spend our whole lives in this natural world with its natural laws. It’s easy to lose sight of how often God’s Kingdom works exactly the opposite way things in the natural world work. And that’s assuming we ever knew the difference in the first place.
Kingdom of God Upside Down
In many ways the Kingdom of God is upside down from the way the world works. For example:
- To become a leader you have to be a servant
- To truly find life, die to yourself
- To get back at your enemy, love him
- To become rich, give money away
(If those ideas give you pause, each of them is explained in more detail at the link above.)
Inside Out vs. Outside In
Another way we tend to get things turned around is in how we effect real change in the world around us. In the world’s way of doing things, change is seen to happen from the outside in. But in truth change really happens from the inside out.
According to the world’s system what matters is how things appear on the outside. As long as we are doing the right things and people are seeing the right results then all is well.
In contrast what matters in the Kingdom of God is not outward appearances, but rather our internal character and heart. God explained this to Samuel when he was sent out to anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be king. Samuel saw Jesse’s oldest son and was so impressed by his appearance thought to himself that he had to be the one.
God’s perspective was a little different. Here’s what he had to say about it:
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” — 1 Samuel 16:7
The reason the heart is so critical is because when our heart is right everything else will follow out of that and be right too. But when our hearts are messed up, no matter how well we do things out the outside, it will only be for a season. With a wrong heart we’ll end up being a mess in the end.
Proverbs 4:23 says that our heart is what determines the course of our lives. What’s in our heart determines what we say and what we do.
How Church Leaders Fall
Perhaps the biggest reason that high profile church leaders fall is because they get it wrong on this point. They do everything they can to keep up appearances and strive to do everything well.
However when we neglect our own heart we open ourselves up significant moral failings. When outside appearances matter to us more than our inner character, we become quick to make compromises.
Over time those compromises become more and more significant until eventually it’s like we’re living double lives. The neat and tidy exterior that everyone sees is radically different from the jumbled mess of our souls that we do everything in our power to hide.
Ultimately, though, the truth has a way of making itself known (Luke 12:2). What is inside will show itself at some point. Our heart will determine the course of our lives.
Church leaders who focus on outward appearances at the neglect of their own hearts will fall eventually because they can only hold it together for so long before the wheels fall off and their world comes crashing down around them. If a leader has a large influence when he falls it can be pretty devastating as it causes large numbers of folks to question their faith.
Our Good Actions
So much of what we do and teach is about doing good things. We focus in on how people behave, their social status, their skills and abilities. So many of our sermons are behavior focused. In far too many of our churches what we hear most from the pulpit is how bad sin is and the importance of leaving it behind.
Unfortunately far too much of the time these messages only address external behavior. When the focus is behavior oriented it’s natural to conclude that the solution to our world’s problems is for people to do more of the right things.
This leads people to think that Christians can usher in the Kingdom of God through social activism or politics.
Politics As Fruit Not Root
When Christians fixate on behavior there is a tendency to want to control the behavior of others. If it’s all about our behavior then we make rules to try and force the desired behavior. We make rules for ourselves. And even though we don’t keep our own rules very well, we somehow think that the right thing to do is to make rules for other people to follow too.
It’s like we think the Kingdom of God will come swooping in on a 747.
But it won’t.
Politics won’t really change the world. Like everything we do, politics is just a symptom of the heart. Until people’s hearts change, making new laws will mostly make things worse for everyone rather than improving society.
At the same time when people truly draw nearer to God in personal intimacy then laws restricting or conforming their behavior become far less necessary. Genuine intimacy with God changes our hearts to be more like his. As our hearts change we naturally stop doing wrong things and start doing more right things.
Jesus said it this way.
“A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. A tree is identified by its fruit. Figs are never gathered from thorn bushes, and grapes are not picked from bramble bushes. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.” — Luke 6:43-45
What we do and what we say simply overflow from what is already in our heart.
Critical We Do Good Works
Don’t get me wrong. It is critical that we do good works in our community. Good works are emphasized numerous times in the New Testament. Here are just a few of the examples:
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. — Ephesians 2:10
From the writer of Hebrews we are exhorted to good works.
And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. — Hebrews 10:24-25
Then James directly refutes a wrong thinking in the early church that so spiritualized everything to the point that actions and behavior were considered irrelevant. He said that our faith must lead to good works. If it doesn’t then it’s not genuine faith at all. (James 2:14-20)
So please hear me on this. I am not saying our behavior is unimportant. Nor am I saying that doing good things in our world is irrelevant. It’s critical we do good things. As followers of Jesus, what we do has a huge impact on the people around us.
What I’m saying is that doing good things is not enough. People do good things all the time for selfish ungodly motives. And while it is far better to be doing good things that help people and lift them up than to do bad things that destroy people, if there is no heart change then all the good we do is only temporary. It only lasts until the resources or help we provide run out.
However, when our doing good is accompanied by showing people how to have their own direct relationship with God, it is only then that they are being equipped to perpetuate those resources and get help from the only truly inexhaustible source – God himself.
The Wrong Tree
Really it comes down to this. Which tree are we focusing on?
Back in the Garden of Eden the sin of Adam and Eve was that they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. As a result we all have some understanding of right and wrong, good and evil.
When we fixate on actions and behaviors what we are really doing is working to move people off of the evil branches and onto the good branches. That’s where nearly all religion focuses. Religion generally systemizes ways to avoid evil branches and stay on the good branches.
The trouble is when we do that we’re still feeding at the wrong tree!
What we really need is over on the Tree of Life.
God banished Adam and Eve from the garden before they could eat any fruit from the Tree of Life. As a result they died, first spiritually. And then ultimately they died physically.
Jesus didn’t come so that we could do good things. He came so that we might have life. Not just any life, mind you, but an abundant, full, and overflowing life. (John 10:10)
Good things will automatically flow out of us when we are feeding at the Tree of Life. Our actions will come from our hearts and will bless people out of that overflowing life Jesus provides, from the inside out.
Change That Lasts
What it comes down to is this. When we change from the inside out because we’re feeding from the Tree of Life instead of from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil we experience lasting change that is truly beneficial to us and everyone around us.
In contrast, trying to force change from the outside in by controlling behavior often fades and can even be downright damaging. The world is full of people who are hurt and wounded because of religion, even Christianity. I sure was one of them.
I thought if I just did the right things then I would change. After 15 years or so with frustrating limited results I was nearly burnt out and wondering if this whole Christianity thing really worked. I was saved and stuck. It was like I had all the pieces to the puzzle but couldn’t see how they all fit together.
Fortunately God is merciful, kind, loving, and patient. When I finally got to the point of giving up my own striving God was right there and suggested that I try his way instead.
I’m setting aside striving to do stuff while I focus on my own heart. I’m finally beginning to see what Jesus really meant when he said this.
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. — Matthew 11:28-30
And the best part? I’m actually doing more things that most would classify as “good” than I ever did before. Only now it seems to just flow out of me.
There is effort involved though. My flesh naturally wants to pull me back into the mode of striving to do stuff because that’s what it has known nearly my whole life. It takes a little bit of work to resist that pull and stay in that place of rest fully relying on God, which is exactly what Hebrews 4:11 warns us about.
But it is so worth the effort. Because by focusing on my heart I spend more time in a place of peace. Yet at the same time I end up doing more good things for people around me too. It’s been slower going at first because heart issues are messy and are difficult to deal with.
Ultimately what I’m finding is a place where doing good things becomes energizing instead of draining. That makes for sustainable long term results.
And that is proving to be far more impactful than just if I just learned to do some good things without ever addressing the issues in my own heart.