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Heroism and the Ordinary Christian Life

July 21, 2014

Have you ever read the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal at Mt. Carmel? It’s found in 1 Kings 18. I would recommend you read it for yourself, but here is a summary. Israel had turned aside from the Lord to the false god, Baal. In order to prove to Israel that the Lord alone was the real and living God, Jesus had Elijah challenge the prophets of Baal to a duel. Each would build an altar to their respective deity and then each would pray that their god would consume the offering with fire from heaven. So, the priest of Baal build their altar, spend all day crying out for him to consume it – even cutting themselves – and nothing happens. Elijah, on the other hand, has water dumped on the offering multiple times, even filling a trench he had dug around it. He then stands back, prays once, and immediately fire descends from heaven. The water is dried, the offering consumed. God wins. Elijah is a hero.

I think most Christians want to be Elijah. I know I certainly did. Before I was a minister I wanted to lose my life on a pyre singing hymns of praise to Jesus. I wanted a public opportunity (Note the word “public”.) to give everything I had to a homeless person and build a name like Mother Theresa. I wanted to do extraordinary things for Jesus. I wanted to be a hero.

I think this desire is common among Christians (at least here in North America). The two most common names this desire goes by today are “Radical Christianity”, and “being sold out for Jesus”. All this means is, we want to be heroes for Jesus. We want to be the faithful servant of the Lord standing alone and outnumbered, but called by God to do something spectacular, something worthy of history.

 Zach Eswine, is his helpful book Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being, raises an important question about this way of thinking.

What is the heroic moment meant to do [in the Bible] but recover the ordinary greatness that God originally intended? (locations 672-679)

This wonderful question is a great corrective to our desire to be heroes. After all, what was Elijah’s sacrifice for? For bringing Israel back into relationship with God so that she would live each day loving him and neighbor. Eswine explores the book of Judges and notes the same thing. What was the purpose of the Judges? To reestablish Israel in an every day relationship with God and neighbor in the gospel. The same is true of New Testament heroes, like Paul and Stephen. Why were they preaching and eventually martyred? Because they were trying to bring people to Jesus so that they could live ordinary lives, loving God and neighbor.

Eswine goes on to say this applies even to Jesus’ actions for his people.

The true act of heroism in Jesus on the cross and emptying the tomb is to return us to the grace of doing life with God in a place of love for our neighbors and finding enjoyment in that which God created for us. (locations 679-685)

Jesus didn’t die to turn us into Superman or Wonder Woman. He died so that we could experience and express our humanity in its fullest way. That is to live as those who, related to God by faith in Christ, love God because he first loved us and love our neighbors because we are loved by God.

I think a cursory reading of the New Testament will bear this out. What does God want his people to do after they’re saved? To “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). What does this peaceful, quiet life look like? Like a relationship of love and forgiveness and honor among family members. (Ephesians 5:22-32), Like submission and respect to civl authorities (1 Peter 2:13-17). Like hard, honest labor for our employers and like thankfulness and enjoyment of our food (1 Corinthians 10:31). This is what the gospel does to us. The good news of Jesus doesn’t turn us into heroes; it turns into people who love the Triune God and love those around us in the every day ho-hum-ness of life.

As Eswine says in a great summary,

Heroic moments have as their aim the recovery of the ordinary. (Locations 679-685)

What great news for us. The gospel doesn’t call us to be heroes. Jesus has already done that on our behalf. The gospel instead calls us to be ordinary: ordinary Christians who love God and seek his glory, who pray for his kingdom to come, and who worship him in Spirit and in truth; ordinary Christians who love their neighbors by praying for the gospel’s arrival in their lives, by treating them with dignity, and by giving them a cup of cold water in the name of Christ.

The great Martin Luther once said, “God doesn’t need your good works, your neighbor does.” This is perfectly true. We might say as well: God doesn’t need your heroics, and neither does your neighbor. Instead, God wants your ordinary faithfulness. That is what your neighbor needs – and it’s what you need too.


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