April 19, 2017

Christian Restivism

Everyone wants to be a Christian Activist these days.  No one wants to be a Christian Restivist.

Get what I mean?  With the demise of terms such as “holiness” and “godliness” in our secular frame, activism has become the new way to be virtuous, and, just as importantly in this social media, self-promoting age, to display that virtue.

And there is plenty to be active about.  Plenty of causes in which to both be virtuous and to display it.


Plenty of causes of the month/day/hour/whatever, to do and to be seen to be doing. Plenty of secular causes and plenty of noble causes to attach one’s name to, whether of the Left or of the Right.

So it wasn’t going to take long for Christians to cotton on to the idea in this post-Christian virtue culture that activism is the way forward.  After all it taps right into our sense of purpose and self-fulfilment, as well as being a way of helping others.

That’s perhaps the problem.  Outside the parameters of the gospel, the desire to help others and the desire to self-fulfil are conjoined twins; it’s hard to know where one ends and the other starts.  And to separate them outside the safe confines of gospel surgery will kill both.

It’s rare, indeed impossible, to be someone who wants to help others in our culture, without there being some trade off for one’s self.  It’s a culture of self-fulfilment, not self-denial.  So much so that self-denial in our activist culture is a pathway to self-fulfilment (and often a path to self-promotion).

And in our culture, in which the Christian frame is looked upon with increasing suspicion, access to cultural approval for the Christian can be via activism.  Joining with secular groups to do virtuous stuff for all sorts of groups who need help.  Nothing wrong with that per se.

But the radical reality of the gospel is not that it enables us to be activists, but that it enables us to be restivists. It enables us to rest from all our labours (Hebrews4:10); enables us to be something that the secular culture won’t applaud; enables us to be something that our self-righteous, harried hearts feel nervous about, and therefore will shy away from.

Indeed our self-righteous, harried hearts DO shy away from rest, and our church culture seems to be doing everything within its grasp to help us shy away from rest and pursue its own form of evangelical activism.  The defining feature of evangelical churches in the West is not rest. Do I even need to tell you that?  It is not even merely well-considered activism.  It is ill-considered activism.  And it’s burning out church leaders and their flock at a rate of knots.

Our culture binges on self-promoting activism (not merely of the political or social variety), then when exhausted, binges on self-absorbed leisure.  It’s boom or bust. Restivism rescues us from this.  It enables us to do our work and to do our leisure , but then say to both of them “thus far shalt thou come and no more.”

The Bible shows that the goal of God’s people is defined, first and foremost, not by activity, but by rest.  And it’s instructive that at two major intersections in Scripture, one in the Old Testament, one in the New Testament, restivism is the defining feature of God’s people living under God’s rule in God’s place.

So the height of God’s promise to Israel is found in 1King4, where Solomon is king, the land is at peace, and God’s people have received their inheritance.  What do we find?

20 The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy. 21 And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. These countries brought tribute and were Solomon’s subjects all his life. 22 Solomon’s daily provisions were thirty cors[a] of the finest flour and sixty cors[b] of meal, 23 ten head of stall-fed cattle, twenty of pasture-fed cattle and a hundred sheep and goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roebucks and choice fowl. 24 For he ruled over all the kingdoms west of the Euphrates River, from Tiphsah to Gaza, and had peace on all sides. 25 During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree.

“They ate and drank and were happy?” What a hedonistic lazy life!  Any self-respecting activist would surely be up in arms about this, especially at the wanton waste, and the sheer sense of satisfaction felt by people, who, having everything, should be getting on with it!

But, in biblical theology terms, this is viewed as the height of Israel, the closest God’s people come to experiencing the promised rest of God in the land.  There is a good King, good provisions from him, everyone has an inheritance, and the people are delirious.

An activist’s nightmare right there.

But as we know, things fall apart not long after that under Solomon. The spiral of Israel that leads them to exile is burdensome and torturous.  The promise grows that a true rest from God is coming when God’s people will again live under God’s rule in God’s place.

And that’s where we get Acts 2.  Post Pentecost we read:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

That’s restivism right there.  That’s God’s people living in God’s place under God’s rule – again.  But this time fully and finally.  And what defines their lives is pretty much what defines the lives of Israel in Solomon’s day.  They have a great King, they have God’s laws, no one is in want, and they were chilled out and happy!

And the good news is that, unlike Solomon’s day, that isn’t the pinnacle of it prior to the collapse, but merely the start!  Jesus has promised his gospel will head out from Jerusalem to way beyond the borders of Egypt and the Euphrates.  It will go to the whole world.  And it will go out with The Lord adding to their number. Even their multiplication is God’s work.

Of course, that’s a completely dangerous and subverting reality.  So dangerous and subversive that many evangelical activists read it and say: “Right, let’s organise this.  The first Christians met in homes, so we should meet in homes.  The first Christians sold everything and gave it away, so let’s get a program for socialisation of our goods up and running.  The first Christians met every day in the temple: We need more meetings!”  And so on, and so on. Been there, done that, bought the tea-towel. And all the while forgetting that this passage is not a prescription of what we should do, but a clear reminder of what God has done; delivered on his promise for his people – rest in the land under his righteous rule.

Restivism is way too dangerous and subversive for driven activists like us, who can baptise any pace of life and helter-skelter church program. We’re so scared of being lazy. Restivism Life carries no kudos in Activism World. It earns no plaudits in a world in which Christians can now prove their worth by how much they do for others outside the church, because, after all, what’s done for the church is now considered worthless in the eyes of the world, given how on-the-nose the church is.

Yet it’s takes effort to rest.  It takes effort not to say “Shouldn’t we be doing more?”  It takes effort not to echo with Helen Lovejoy as she runs around; “Won’t somebody think of the children?”  And whether you’re a conservative Christian activist (more evangelism, more programs, more whatever), or you’re a progressive Christian activist (more protest, more social action plans, more whatever), restivism is a challenge to us and our self-righteousness.

I expect pushback from both conservative and progressive activists on this.  So that’s fine.  But here’s what I also expect:  A whole bunch of harried, tired Christians who are being tugged and pulled every which way by every worthy cause, left and right; every scolding social media campaign; every “how can we sit by and let such and such happen?”, to simply say “Phew, thank you!”

Over to you.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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