By Adam Grzeskowiak … The genius of Christianity was the basis for taking the nascent religion out of the narrow, ethnic and provincial context of Palestinian Judaism. It transformed it into a universal religion, relied, among other things, on its absolute simplicity, was permeated with the incredible depth of God’s love expressed in the person of Jesus and was disseminated by his followers.
To a great extent, the life, actions and words of Christ, characterized by simplicity and love, were the realization of the postulates, which had been directed to the nation of Israel by some of the prophets in the previous centuries. They have been accurately synthesized by Micah 6:8 (NKJV): “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you; But to do justly, to love mercy (loving kindness), And to walk humbly with your God.” The fuller meaning of these words, and practical conclusions resulting from them, have come in a natural way when we look at their meaning in the historical and cultural context.
Lessons from the History of Israel
The prophet Micah (c. 740–725 BC) worked in the Southern Kingdom of Judah simultaneously with the prophet Isaiah (c. 745–685 BC), while Hosea (c. 755–725 BC) and a bit earlier Amos (c. 767–753 BC) prophesied in the northern country of Israel. This period, especially the second half of Jeroboam’s II reign (c. 787–748 BC) in Israel and Azariah’s (c. 783–732 BC), Jotham’s (c. 750–735 BC), and the first years of Ahaz’s reign in Judah, was characterized by general prosperity.
In the period preceding the reign of Jeroboam II, Israel experienced some difficulties having their roots in the dominance of Syria (see 2 Kings 10:32; 13:3.7). Jeroboam gained significant political and military power in the region as Syria was defeated (c. 800 BC), and Assyria was ruled by a series of weak kings, who were more engaged in the dangers present on the northern edge of the empire than in the situation taking place in the south-east.
Jeroboam II, through the result of his military conquests, restored the borders of Israel from its era of prosperity in the days of David and Solomon, extending them as far as Hamath in the north (see 2 Kings 14:25). He won a series of victories over the Arameans (2 Kings 14:25-27), and also conquered their capital, Damascus. (14:28) By that, he introduced Israel to a period of prosperity. Restoration of the previous borders and the retrieval of pastures and fields as well as taking over the control of the trading routes again, definitely contributed to the renewed prosperity of Israel and Judah. Besides that, significant tributes were paid by the defeated enemies and the material goods collected during the conquests contributed to their wealth.
The visible improvement of the economic situation of Judah and Israel was reflected in a directly proportional decline in the quality of spiritual experience of the members of the Chosen Nation. It was noticeable in two main areas: (1) absolute religious formalism, as expressed in Isaiah 1:13 (NIV): “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies”; and (2) through a total ignorance of the needs and problems of their fellow men: “They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them” (Isaiah 1:23 NIV; see also Amos 2:8; 5:12; Micah 6:8-12).
The situation analyzed here points at a close relationship taking place between having a substitute of God—a formal religion—and the treatment of other human beings. The message of the Old Testament prophets clearly presents that the religion of Israel, at its core, in the expression of faith for Yahweh, was based on the attitude of righteousness, respect, honesty, and care for the other man. Used since the ancient times, a principle of making deduction based on analogy, a minore ad maius—from the minor to the major—ays that if the category “minor” is correct, the category “more” is also correct. Apostle John also applies this logic: “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:10). Faith, which is not expressed with a wise, cordial, empathic attitude toward people you meet on your way (in the family and beside it; in the church and beside it) means infidelity, fiction, and a form of idolatry.
Is Less Sometimes More?
The context of the activity of the prophets mentioned earlier draws our attention to a rather interesting religious phenomenon. From the sociological research analyzing the relation of the economic situation of the society to its faith, it can be concluded that generally, the higher the standard of living, the lower the percentage of people in the society define themselves as the believing and practicing and vice versa. In less well-off societies, a higher degree of religious involvement is noted (this relation changes after going beyond some level of poverty—in extreme poverty the interest in religion disappears).
Let me now use the example of the country I come from. After the WW II, Poland was among the countries which directly underwent the economic policy of robbery run by the USSR. With some simplifications, that reality changed in 1989. Then the political, social, cultural, and economic transformations occurred. In 2004, Poland became a member of the European Union. The economic situation, its standard as well as quality of life, successively got better and better.
The research done in 2020 by the Central Statistical Office shows that in the last 25 years, the decrease in faith in God among the youth was just 20%, while the decrease in religious practices reached 50%. It is a new phenomenon, which might be called a disorder of intergenerational faith transitions. Such disorder and its consequences are the result of the change of priorities and opportunities, which were obtained by the post-’89 generations.
The relation presented here suggests that Christians living in highly-developed countries (such as Scandinavia, the USA, Canada, Australia, or Great Britain) and those well-developed (majority of the European countries), are to a greater extent prone to religious formalism and lack of sensitivity to the other man.
The Christian religion, which grew out of Judaism, in its essence, can be expressed as loving God, loving oneself, and loving other people. The loss of these determinants, especially in their practical dimension, must undoubtedly result in the stagnation of the church, a lack of close human relationships, lack of community involvement, and finally, their disappearance. Such a status has been achieved by the so-called historic churches in most of the Western European countries. We can say that the loss of a sense of reliance on God and the simplicity of faith expressed in human love, deprives the church of its special feature, a kind of ‘magic’, taste, and enforcement power.
The Perverse Reform?
Since the time of Martin Luther, the Christian world has been emphasizing, with all its power, the meaning of saving faith and deeds, which cannot ensure salvation. This is an unquestionable fact! (See: Ephesians 2:4-9). The Scriptures state clearly that divine grace results in salvation and precedes all the signs of good works. “It is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).
However, in a sense, the igniting of a spiritual flame in the life of individuals and the church, is the result of a practical involvement. “I, by my works, will show you my faith” (James 2:18 NRSV). Leaving the comfort zone, practical signs of goodwill and affection include an open house, time devoted to someone, sharing a good word, physical or material help, encountering and meeting human need. All of these evoke kindness and compassion in the Christian life, and evoke other, fuller, and more altruistic attitudes. These bring with them a special kind of satisfaction and happiness. Gift-giving makes happy not only the recipient but also the gift-giver!
Moreover, difficulties encountered while fulfilling good purposes cannot be avoided because of human weaknesses and hopeless situations, but can stimulate Christians to pray, to look for God’s solutions, to read the Bible, and in the end, to feel gratitude for experiencing the Holy Spirit. Deeds of love arouse and build up faith.
In practice, what the church needs is not bonding over the theological nuances, endless disputes, getting the points across, and belittling the views of those who believe differently (which can be regarded as a sign of spiritual pride and arrogance), but the work of love for others, in which, according to the Scriptures, the real relation to God is expressed.
Practical faith is also a natural foundation for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That brilliant simplicity of biblical Christianity, in its program aimed at meeting the other man, meeting them in their everyday reality, constituted the dynamic expression of the Early Church. The favorable conditions in which we live, make the church fall asleep. Practical Christianity is a form of antidote, a strong espresso, which makes spiritual energy free, through which God saves the world.
This is also expressed by Ellen G. White: “The spirit of unselfish labor for others gives depth, stability, and Christlike loveliness to the character, and brings peace and happiness to its possessor. The aspirations are elevated. There is no room for sloth or selfishness. Those who thus exercise the Christian graces will grow and will become strong to work for God. They will have clear spiritual perceptions, a steady, growing faith, and an increased power in prayer. The Spirit of God, moving upon their spirit, calls forth the sacred harmonies of the soul in answer to the divine touch . . . The only way to grow in grace is to be disinterestedly doing the very work which Christ has enjoined upon us—to engage, to the extent of our ability, in helping and blessing those who need the help we can give them. Strength comes by exercise; activity is the very condition of life” (Steps to Christ, p. 80).
–Dr. Adam Grzeskowiak is director of the Department of Theological Studied at the Polish College of Theology and Humanities, Podkowa Lesna, Poland. Email him at: [email protected]