The Myth of Christian Balance
By Cornell Ngare
This life is like a pendulum (or you can look at it as a balancing scale, if you like). We are always swinging from one extreme of a pendulum to another. As many theologians will perceptively point out, we are always either in the danger of trusting in our own ability to keep the law (pelagianism) or becoming complacent in the name of surrendering to grace (antinomianism).
Some people will react to complacency by urging us to be radical for Christ. Others will react to radical Christianity by urging us to be ordinary. But what if life is not really like a pendulum? What if the location of true holiness is not midway between two sinful extremes? What if we are describing logically what can only be perceived and understood spiritually? I believe that while this call to Christian balance is full of good intentions, it is often rooted in an unbiblical understanding of sin and righteousness.
BLAME IT ON ARISTOTLE
In Nicomachean Ethics, this is how Aristotle describes virtue:
"Virtue is a purposive disposition, lying in a mean that is relative to us and determined by a rational principle, by that which a prudent man would use to determine it."
In other words, "Because practical circumstances vary a great deal, there are no absolute rules of conduct to follow. Instead, we can only observe that right conduct consists of some sort of mean between the extremes of deficiency and excess. For instance, courage consists in finding a mean between the extremes of cowardice and rashness, though the appropriate amount of courage varies from one situation to another." While Aristotle's description of virtue sounds reasonable, it is based on the FALSE assumption that human beings are born with the innate ability (or potential) to be morally upright. The Bible tells us otherwise:
"All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." [Romans 3:12]
Yet, it is not very uncommon to find Christians speaking about true virtue and holiness as if they are calculated choices that can be attained through constant practice and great prudence, devoid of the Holy Spirit's help. For instance, we are always complaining about the extremes that we should avoid when we are dealing or reacting to some issues. And this is where the pendulum language comes in.
However, the secret to "Christian Balance" is the PERSON of the Christian lifestyle. The secret to "Christian Balance" is DEPENDENCE upon the Holy Spirit.
THE MOST OVERLOOKED PERSON OF THE TRINITY
It is in the abiding that true holiness is found. The secret to Christian balance is not a secret, but a person, the Holy Spirit. There is therefore no such thing as balance, or a pendulum to measure our behavior by. Not really. True "Christian balance" means being filled and led by the spirit. It means abiding in Christ so that we may bear fruit. Our focus should not be to try as much as we can to avoid extremes and identify a middle ground. Our focus should be to repent of all extremes and constantly seek God's will, giving thanks for any form of moderation that emerges as a result.
The language of extremes and moderation is a scientific language. It is our best attempt at describing how holiness looks and doesn't look like. However, the language of the Spirit is redemptive. In the Spirit, we are not holy because we are balanced, we appear balanced because we are holy. We are not holy because we are sober, we appear sober because we are holy. The scientific or Aristotelian language is a "do" language. But the language of the Spirit is a "be" language.
Paul says to the Ephesians and to us;
"Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but BE filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." [Ephesians 5:18-18]
We are not holy because we avoid alcohol and debauchery. Neither are we holy because we address one another in psalms and hymns. We are not even holy because we give thanks to God in everything. No. We avoid drunkenness and debauchery because we are filled with the Spirit. We give thanks in everything because we are filled with the Spirit. We "do" because we "be" (because we "are").
THE ONLY ACCEPTABLE EXTREME
Paul does not temper drunkenness by advising us to drink in moderation, he counters drunkenness by exhorting us to be filled with the Spirit. This is the acceptable radical. The acceptable extreme. You can never have an excess of the Spirit. Therefore, when we understand that true holiness is from the Holy Spirit, then our focus will be more on seeking to submit to the leading of the Spirit than simply seeking to conform to the visible appearances of holiness. In other words, we should find ourselves praying more than we presently do. For prayer is the ultimate expression of our dependence. True dependence has nothing to do with doing nothing. It has everything to do with following the leading of the Spirit.
So, are you holy? Are you filled with the Spirit? Are you dependent on Him? If we learn to look at obedience in this LIGHT, we will speak less of finding balance and more of being filled with the Spirit. We will focus less on avoiding extremes, and more on abiding in Christ. We will find ourselves praying more, trusting more, and hoping more that Christ will be our holiness rather than doing the "holy things" and trying to find our assurance in our ability to check off a holiness list.
BALANCE STILL MATTERS
Even so, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Moderation is an admirable Christian virtue that we should all aspire to. Moderation is what "self-control" or "temperance" looks like in practice. However, how we try to attain this moderation is what I am concerned about in this post. My aim is to remind us that self-control is not self-controlled, it is God-controlled. It is a fruit of the Spirit, not a fruit of self, experience or calculation.
We are called to be filled with the Spirit, not to balance pendulums.