Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the introduction to the newest short-term Bible study from Threads, Abide: Practicing Kingdom Rhythms in a Consumer Culture, by Jared C. Wilson. Abide is currently available for pre-order HERE.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me” (John 15:5).
Some parts of the Bible sound awesome until I realize I don’t understand them. Once I realize I don’t understand them, they don’t stop being awesome, of course, but my awe is less of the “Wow!” variety and more of the slack-jawed, drooling “Ummm …” variety. Ephesians 5:18 is a prime example: “And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless actions, but be filled with the Spirit.”
The “don’t get drunk” stuff I totally understand. Tell me not to do something, and I can usually handle it. It’s the other part that’s confusing. How exactly do you “be filled with the Spirit”? It tells me to do something—which is great—but I have no idea how to accomplish what I’m supposed to do. How do I go about “being filled”? Doesn’t the Spirit fill? How do I be something the Spirit does? It sounds as though Paul is telling me to get active about being passive.
And he is.
Though I’m still wrestling with the concept, I’m beginning to realize I’m already quite familiar with the concept of active passivity. And passive activity for that matter.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 79 percent of Americans live in urban or suburban areas (factfinder.census.gov). Every day those of us who live in these areas, particularly in the suburbs and the “nicer” areas of the city, demonstrate with our routines and attitudes that we are experts at actively being filled with the spirit of something. We’re shaped by the place and the manner in which we live. By living in a certain manner and in a certain place, we give permission for this shaping to take place, though most of us aren’t aware it’s happening. That’s the same sort of active passivity Paul appealed to in Ephesians 5:18.
If I may be blunt, the suburbs smother the Christian spirit. I know this firsthand because I’ve spent most of my life in suburban areas. My experience there has taught me that in most cases, both the conscious and subconscious message of the suburbs, in a nutshell, is self-empowerment. Self-enhancement. Self-fulfillment. Self is at the center, and all things serve the self (self-service!). The primary values of suburbia are convenience, abundance, and comfort. In suburbia you can have it all, and you can get it made to order in a super-sized cup with an insulated sleeve.
Whether we realize it or not, the values of suburban culture affect us. They shape us. They slyly dictate how we think, act, and feel. And how we follow Jesus. (Or how we don’t follow Jesus, for that matter.) The cultural tide of suburbia is exceedingly difficult to swim against. Almost instinctively, we feel we must have the nice house for our busy family, the nice car to get us to our rewarding job, and the nice neighborhood amenities to make all of life more livable. For followers of Jesus it’s a challenge to engage in worship of Him that goes beyond a weekend church service and invades the space and time of the rest of our “real lives.”
Most of us make time for God when we feel we have time, doing our best to fit Him in between the paths from house to car, car to work, work to car, and car to house. The problem is that God owns all of life, and worshiping God means we must revolve around Him, rather than the other way around. God shouldn’t be confined to a compartment in our schedules. Jesus doesn’t abide in His assigned time slot; we abide in Him.
But how do we do that?
Abiding in Him is the process of formation, but that’s easier said than done, since most of us have already been formed by the consumer culture we’re immersed in. We’ve adapted quite well to the rhythms of suburbia and we’ve even stuck a Jesus fish on some of them. To cultivate spiritual formation, then, means to find ways to immerse ourselves in the work of the Spirit—to re-sync our lives to the rhythms of the kingdom of God.
Unfortunately these rhythms are difficult to hear and feel inside the noise of our consumer culture, which is blaringly loud even in the peace of the suburbs.
As the directive to “be filled with the Spirit” indicates, and as Jesus’ command to “abide” implies, there must be intentionality and active participation on our part. But the difference between Abide and other works on spiritual disciplines is a sense of relief. Many of us grew up in church environments that stressed things like quiet times, service projects, and worship services—which are all good things—in such a way as to create holy homework for the Christian life. The result, at least for me, was not kingdom rhythm but religious burden.
Often missing from my own spiritual formation attempts in the past was the central place of the good news of Jesus’ complete and sufficient work. Imagine if Paul had written in Philippians 2:12, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” and stopped there. It’s good, solid instruction, but there’s not much good news in it. A command like that is sufficient for Christian busywork, and by itself it would be successful at creating more of what it requires. But Paul didn’t end the thought there. He didn’t just say, “Get to work.” He wrote in verse 13, “For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to will and to act for His good purpose.” Now that is good news!
Being filled with the Spirit is like sailing. There are roughly 20 to 30 working parts on a sailboat, which means there are always plenty of tasks to accomplish when sailing. You will definitely break a sweat, and you have to stay attentive. But there is one thing you can’t control, and it makes all the difference in the world: the wind. You can hoist the sail, but only the wind can push a sailboat through the water.
Many approaches to spiritual formation can be compared to getting into a sailboat and then blowing deep breaths into the sail. Consequently we get really tired and have almost nothing to show for our work. The approach of Abide, however, is to help you cultivate the conditions to best live in and enjoy the goodness of the good news. The kingdom of God is at hand. Its rhythms are at work, and they are within your grasp. A life that follows kingdom rhythms can be lived anywhere in the world, including the suburbs, but it requires an intentional hushing of the consumer clamor so you can focus on the heartbeat of God in the everyday things.