The art of compromiseIntroduction
In our daily walk with Christ, our desire is to at least live a life which fulfills the basic requirements of the moral law. As we live by the Spirit we find ourselves doing that, albeit imperfectly. And when we fail "he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins." When it comes to the ethical ideals of the Bible, these we can only press at, but rarely reach. When our imperfection stands before the perfection of Christ we must learn to accept compromise.
We need to consider the issue of compromise, how it is a daily friend in our service to Christ.
A world of shadows rather than substance;
Ideals are "other" than this age;
Ideals are incompatible with this age.
The Christian life is lived in tension. We follow Christ, one foot in heaven and one foot on earth. This tension limits our discipleship. We must honestly understand and accept these limitations otherwise we will set before ourselves and others expectations impossible to keep.
It is crucial for us to understand that perfect morality will never be perfectly done. Every day in our Christian journey we will all of us slip and fall. We then rest on the truth that "if any one sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the perfect offering for our sins", 1John.2:1-2.
Yet more particularly, it is the ideals of the Kingdom that can only ever be partially realised in our present age. The imperfection of the present moment sees to that. Thus for the present we, with "creation, wait in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed" and to "groan" with a creation "subjected to frustration." That frustration is experienced in two particular ways, in that ethical ideals are "other" than this world and that they are incompatible with it.
First, the otherness of ideals:
The love of the brotherhood is an ideal we are expected to move toward. Yet it is the otherness of this ideal which limits our ability to achieve it. We are created of the dust - flesh and blood. We image the created order. Or more rightly, the created order images us. Flowing through all living things is a drive to define territory and protect the nest. In the animal kingdom the male is genetically driven to aggressively secure a territorial food source and the female to aggressively protect the nest. Humans are similarly driven. For a male not to be angry and for a female not to be jealous, is for them not to be human.
The move from natural feelings to being "angry with his brother", is very subtle indeed. In fact, on most occasions, the move takes place before we are ever aware of it. Only after the imagination has done its work do we feel a need to contain and limit its excesses. The Spirit will ultimately renew our mind, and to this work we bend our will, yet our nature also does its thing. We all get angry. We all hate a brother or sister at some time or other.
Second, the incompatibility of ideals with the present order of things:
In simple terms the limitations of our present existence affect the actual application of the ideals of the Kingdom. What happens is that the ideals don't work here. We have seen how we experience the limitations of the present in that we can't reach (fully) the ideals of the Kingdom. We must also accept that the ideals of the Kingdom can't reach us (fully). They just don't work here.
Imagine trying to apply "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you", or "Do not resist an evil person". How any Christian could claim to live by the Sermon on the Mount is a mystery indeed. We all invite our friends to our Bar-B-Q's, Luke.14:12-14.
The incompatibility of Kingdom principles with the imperfection of the present moment is clearly illustrated in the life of Jesus himself:
i] The young Jesus must be in his "Father's house", but must also be "obedient" to his father and mother - an impossible dilemma, Luke.2:49-52.
ii] In dealing with his unbelieving family, he is not able to be totally frank with them, 7:1-13.
iii] What of his sensual self? Was it not embarrassment which made Jesus bend down and write on the ground with his finger in the presence of the woman taken in adultery, John.8:1-11? What of those enigmatic words to Mary of Magdala on the resurrection morning, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father"? These are not the words of an asexual man.
The principles of the Kingdom are restricted by the limitations of this age and so force compromise upon us.
How else are they limited?
The corruption of sin
Satan, temptation and sin limit our lives;
The powers of darkness are defeated but still dangerous;
In the struggle we are steeled for our rule with Christ.
The sinful nature remains while in this body and it is constantly aroused by the powers of darkness. "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith", 1Peter.5:8. All kinds of temptation will face the Christian as the Tempter seeks to use us up, make us ineffective as disciples.
In one sense the powers of darkness have been defeated by Christ on the cross. He has broken the back of these "world rulers of this darkness", "the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenlies", Eph.6:12, "elemental forces of the world", Col.2:8, 20, Gal.4:3, 9, "Principalities and powers", Col.1:16. We share in this victory by being more than conquerors through him who loved us, Rom.8:37.
Yet in another sense, the battle still continues in this age and thus our struggle is not against "flesh and blood" but against evil spiritual powers. The battle will continue until Christ "hands over the Kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power", 1Cor.15:23. So for the present, we share in the struggle, having to face the ebb and flow of battle, knowing all the time we are more than conquerors. So although the decisive battle is won, we must continue the moping up action, and in this struggle we are shaped for eternity. Sometimes we are defeated, yet we are always aware that nothing can cut us off from Christ. This battle prepares us for our rule with Christ in eternity.
"Christ will reign until he has put all enemies under his feet". Here then lies our place, to reign with Christ, 2Tim.2:12. To be "his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way". When this shadow land is subsumed into the light of eternity and we stand with Christ in the day of resurrection, we will find that life's travails have prepared us for the age to come.
The powers of darkness, of temptation and sin, limit the effectiveness of discipleship in that we fail to live in the purity of love. It forces compromise upon us. Yet in the struggle there is gain. We are prepared for our reign with Christ.
How then are we to practically apply Christian ethics within a compromised discipleship?
The Apostle Paul on compromise;
The example of marriage;
The example of divorce.
No believer sits easily with compromise in their moral behaviour. None-the-less, for sanity sake, we must do just that. We cannot ignore the limitations we face as we journey through life. We must be willing to just do what we can. The apostle Paul and even Jesus willingly lived with compromise.
Consider his view on marriage. He identifies an ideal which we should move toward. We should consider remaining single for the Lord. "The time is short. From now on ..... those who use the things of this world .... should live ..... as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away". So for Paul "he who does not marry ... does even better" for "an unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs, but a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world - how he can please his wife", 1Cor.7. Jesus makes the same point, Matt.19:12.
Yet to choose not to marry for the Kingdom is an absolute to aim at, not an expectation to be achieved. "The one who can accept" the single life "should accept it". For the disciple who can't accept it, then "they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion". "If you do marry you have not sinned". The absolute simply pushes us "to be as free from worldly entanglements as possible", 1Cor.7:29-32. "I am not putting difficulties in your path, but setting before you an ideal, so that your service of God may be as far as possible free from worldly distractions", 1Cor.7:35.
We are driven by hormones to maintain the species. God himself designed us that way. The ideal is that we totally focus on Jesus, but then, as we saw above, ideals don't work here. Our response therefore must be to do what we can.
Divorce is another interesting example of how Paul accepts compromise, and it can be argued that Jesus himself approached the issue flexibly.
Jesus points out that there is no moral command against divorce; there is but an expectation that it be done with respect toward each party. But says Jesus, it is only "because your hearts were hard" that such leniency is given by God. Such is not God's ideal. In marriage the "two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one. Therefore what God has joined together let man not separate." To his disciples he gives the substance of the ideal by pointing out to them that to divorce one's wife and marry another is to "commit adultery against her", Mark.10:1-12.
As already pointed out, Jesus uses ideals for a theological purpose, rather than an ethical one. So in Luke 16:16-18, he uses the ideal view of divorce to show that something new is happening - the Kingdom of God is bursting in upon us, this age is being overturned. "It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law", and yet that is what is happening. The ideals of the Kingdom are radiating over the limited requirements of the moral law; they are shaking the law and in so doing are becoming a sign that the heaven and earth of this age are indeed about to disappear. As for a realistic expectation on divorce for this age, it is most likely that Jesus does not demand the ideal as a law to be kept. He even allows an exception in his idealistic teaching - "marital unfaithfulness", Matt.5:32. If there is an expectation, it is that we act justly in our dealings with our marriage partner.
As would be expected, Paul accepts far greater compromise, ICor.7.15-16. As is always the case, the compromised act is framed within an ideal to aim at. Paul argues the ideal in v.17-24. This we are to aim at, although the result will always be a compromise. For many woman it will be better to leave (divorce!) their unbelieving husband. The "unmarried" in v.8 may well refer to women who are no longer married (divorced!). Paul's advice is that: "it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry." In practical terms it would be extremely difficult for a woman without a husband to survive in first century society.
So then, the inviolability of the marriage union is an ideal to aim at rather than a law to be kept. Marriage relationships break down. We can only do what we can. If we don't accept that, we end up with a maze of pharisaical regulations which seek to make the ideal "keepable".
Finally, consider for a moment the principle of the one flesh union of marriage, Eph.5:31. If we were to completely fulfill this ideal, there could be no marriage for someone who has had premarital sex with another person and there could be no remarriage of widows. Of course we know Paul does not make a rule against the remarriage of widows, 1Cor.7:8,9,39 and that in writing to Timothy he encourages the younger widows to marry, but this just further illustrates that Paul understands how to compromise.
So with Paul, as with Jesus, there is an acceptance that even with the best of intentions, our ethical behaviour will always be compromised.
Given the limitations of the present moment, our humanity, the circumstances we face day by day and "the old Adam" within, we must accept compromise. Such will see to it that we never achieve perfection in this life.
"If you can bear the Lord's full yoke, you will be perfect. But if you cannot, then do what you can", Didache.
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