This past Saturday I went to the Saturday morning session of General Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints with my sister-in-law, Margo. I really enjoyed being with Margo and sharing something that to her was important, and we had nice visits both on the way into Phoenix and out. (We were both visiting my mother who lives 30 miles north of Phoenix and conference was shown at the Stake Center, which is in Phoenix.)
One of the talks in the Saturday Morning Session was given by L. Tom Perry, an apostle in this church, and one of the top leaders of this church. (LDS folks sustain Elder Perry as a prophet, seer, and revelator in their day.) In the talk, Elder Perry made a statement that caused me to reflect a bit: it was that one should “keep oneself unspotted from the world.” Of course I’m familiar with this command because it’s a biblical command found in James chapter 1 and verse 27. And since Elder Perry brought it up, it made me reflect on just how, biblically, a Christian keeps oneself unspotted from the world.
It’s interesting that this command is given right before James launches into his discourse that encourages Christians to work out their faith—to do good works because the world knows we’re Christians by what we do and not just by what we believe. And, that’s usually what we think about when we think about keeping ourselves unspotted from the world. We think about the things we can and should do to keep ourselves unspotted: moral chastity, keeping our language clean, taking care with what we watch on TV and movies, what we listen to on the radio, what we read, who we associate with, and much, much more.
The trouble is that while these are wonderful things for a Christian to do (and we should do these things), to do these things alone, biblically, is to risk becoming like a Pharisee from Jesus day. Here’s what Paul had to say about his experience as an “unspotted” Pharisee:
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, (Philippians 3:8)
And, then Paul went on to talk about what he considered most important:
. . .that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: (Philippians 3:8, 9)
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is from John 15 where Jesus talks about what the Christian life is all about. Here’s some of it:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)
Notice that in this passage Jesus says that unless you “abide” (or stay in a relationship with Him) in Him, you simply cannot bear fruit. Fruit bearing in scripture is the doing that James talks about, and is how we keep ourselves unspotted from the world. Notice too that Jesus says that unless we’re abiding in Him, we can’t do ANYTHING!
And, that’s the overwhelming message of the New Testament: that we can’t do anything by ourselves, in fact, that everything we do, do is tainted. But, that with Jesus, in a relationship with Him, and knowing Him by faith, we can do everything. And, that in a relationship with Jesus we can be truly unspotted and live a life that’s unspotted by the world.
That’s why in the Christian life it’s often said that while the doing is, of course, important, it’s way, way more important to be. Because you see, doing alone only leads to a legalistic focus on rules and regulations, and ultimately on self: what am I doing for God (I being the key word here)? Whereas being focuses on He who made the rules: Jesus Christ, and being with Him. The focus of being therefore is Him and what He wants me to do and of course as we are (being) we will do.
And, that’s just what Paul discovered when he said that he considered all things as “dung” in comparison to being known by Jesus in the righteousness that comes from faith. Paul had discovered that there’s really no comparison between doing and being.