Balance and the Gospel
Some weeks, my mind is all over the place. It seems to go non-stop, and it’s hard for me to settle on thoughts. Writing becomes very difficult, and sometimes the interconnectedness of my thoughts becomes so complicated that it’s hard to outline them. I’m not able to get a grip on where everything is going. When that happens, it helps to be in a quiet place. It helps to have some distance between me and distractions and stimulus, but that’s not usually possible. Life happens — family, neighbors, work… It’s not always possible to disconnect.
A lot of times, when we get in these states where our thoughts seem uncontrolled or our lives seem unmanageable, people talk about balance. We need to balance work and leisure, time alone and time with people, time in our own heads and time outside of our own heads, etc. We try to balance everything for mental health, physical health, emotional health, interpersonal/relationship health…
Our concepts of balance impact our view of Christianity, as well, and not necessarily in a good way. The idea of balance, itself, must be measured in every context, and that’s something that Christians often neglect. We allow “balance” to be the norm and use it to justify many half-hearted postures.
The Concept of Balance
Balance isn’t just an idea from modern mental health studies. Philosophies of balance have existed for thousands of years. In Eastern philosophy, there’s yin and yang. In recent pop culture, there’s the light side and the dark side. In religion, there’s good and evil. In many expressions of Christianity, there’s God and Satan.
We like the idea of balancing structures, systems, and attributes, because we recognize that in a world where suffering and “bad things” are reality, balancing them out with “good things” becomes a necessity. We also recognize that “good things” are often only good in moderation. Similarly, we recognize that presumably bad things can sometimes bring healthy balance to presumably good things.
An easier way to think of this might be pleasure versus suffering or discomfort. We know that things that bring us pleasure, when sought after in an unbalanced way, don’t always result in good things. Our bodies are adaptive and responsive, and so are our minds, so, as human beings, we require both pleasure and discomfort.
For example, bones grow when put under stress. In order to create strong bones and strong muscles, discomfort is necessary — not injury but discomfort and sometimes even pain (e.g. physical therapy for rehabilitation). Impact training encourages the body to increase bone density, muscle strength, and tendon strength. Repetitious labor encourages the formation of calluses. The most effective physical growth happens alongside discomfort. The same is true for non-physical growth.
The stress of dealing with emotional situations, when coupled with proper coping mechanisms and integrating mechanisms can help us become emotionally resilient, and that, in turn, can help us to be more physiologically resilient. The link between what we call the body and what we call the mind is increasingly evidenced.
We know that discomfort balances out pleasure in ways that are beneficial for us, and similarly, we know that too much discomfort isn’t a good thing. Unregulated discomfort or stress can lead to things like trauma. Injury without proper healing can lead to permanent disability. Pain without relief is what we call torture and can lead to psychological trauma, as well as physical trauma. Even isolation for extended periods of time can cause damage to a person’s mind. We observe that balance between pleasure and discomfort leads to healthy people.
We find that same concept of balance in what we call life and death. If life goes on unbridled — without death — creation quickly becomes overrun. No one thing in creation can be allowed to live indefinitely without the balance of other things. Ecosystems become destroyed that way.
We know this because when we have, as human beings, introduced lifeforms into one ecosystem that weren’t previously there, we see the accidental ramifications of that introduction. One animal can quickly drive another animal to extinction. One type of plant can quickly snuff out another type of plant. Sometimes, we even see that restoring balance to the ecosystem can help rectify that error.
Balance of Life and Death
An important part of the balance of life and death is that it’s generally applied on a physiological level. When we talk about physical life, the balance is obvious. Rampant death without the balance of life leads to complete destruction. Rampant life without the balance of death leads to the destruction of ecosystems — the same kind of destruction in the other direction. Balance is the only way for physical life to persist.
The problem comes when we, as Christians, take that physical life and death balance and apply it to the idea of eternal life found in the Gospel. We assume that eternal life is a physiological sort of thing, that what we’re trying for is an actual, eternal, physical life that persists forever. In order to make that work, we have to create a space outside of the present creation. Eternal, physical, human life would destroy all of present creation; it’s doing it now, even without immortality.
Many Christians call this other place Heaven. The only way for physical life to persist without the balance of death and still be “healthy” is to create a space in which death is unnecessary, so we create this place called Heaven, and we make that our goal. The only thing we need is to get to Heaven and have this eternal, “physiologically-modeled” life, and if we struggle with the physiology of it, then we take that place called Heaven and we “spiritualize” it — we remove physicality entirely.
If you’re thinking that’s a contradiction, I think you’re right. Heaven is often modeled on a physical life and death existence, like that which we find in this present creation, but Christians also try to remove the physical aspects that necessitate balance. This contradiction is necessary because “eternal life” is being interpreted as “eternal, physical life.”
This often leads to a sort of Gnosticism where we say that the physical body is either not important or is actually inherently bad, so we let one thing die (the physical) in order to have this new eternal life (the “spiritual”). The problem is that when we go down that road of spiritualizing eternal life (i.e. spiritual in opposition to physical), it creates a disconnect between the Gospel (an invitation to eternal life) and this present creation (that which will die as part of the “balance”). It glorifies some otherworldly place to which we may someday get and leaves this creation behind. When we do that, we begin to neglect this creation, and not only this creation as a planet, not only things like ecology, but also people.
We begin to dehumanize people. We begin to demonize empathy. We begin to glorify apathy by saying we don’t have time and resources to waste on your physical problems, because we have to devote those things to spiritual pursuits, so we abandon creation to death and justify to ourselves that it’s all part of the “balance.” Everything that goes to eternal life persists in Heaven; everything that doesn’t is what balances out to death. Everything that goes to eternal life is “good” and everything that goes to death is “evil.” In this way, we can wash our hands of responsibility and protect ourselves from guilt.
Balance and the Gospel
I don’t believe this sort of balance is in keeping with the life we find in the Gospel, because Gospel eternal life isn’t referring to life as a physical or physiological thing nor as a conventionally “spiritual” thing (i.e. in opposition to the physical) but as a way of being. When Jesus talks about eternal life, he’s not talking about physical life and therefore it doesn’t need to be balanced by a physical death; Jesus isn’t operating from that model.
Even if we say we’re going to “spiritualize” life after death — even if we say it’s only spiritual, that there is some sort of disembodied eternal life — we still generally talk about it and imagine it as though it is a physical existence. We still try to balance it out with the death of everything that isn’t “there.” We see that in theologies that emphasize sin, wickedness, Satan, and/or Hell in order to glorify purity, righteousness, God, and/or Heaven. Even if we don’t use the language of balance, we still imply that God’s Mission is essentially a balancing one; the death of Jesus balances the scale against evil so that we can end up on the side of good.
Instead, I believe the Gospel presents the opportunity to live into something bigger than our perceived notions of balance.
Life and Death in the Gospel of John
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.
“Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.”
John 5:24–26, NRSV
The offer Jesus is presenting isn’t for some people to move into eternal life and some to move into death. Rather, those who are dead can actually cross over from death into life. Consider for a minute that if everybody who’s dead accepts the one who sent Jesus, we all cross over into eternal life, and the claim that New Testament writers make is that Jesus conquers death on the cross, thus eliminating the sting of death and presenting the way into eternal life.
This isn’t a balance. This is an actual overriding of death with life — an overcoming of “death” that blatantly favors “life.” Jesus is actually proposing that we throw the balance out altogether.
I think there’s a certain perishing nature to all of creation, including people, and that something in that is missing what I believe is the goal of whatever God is doing. I also think Jesus confirms that, here. Although he’s not talking about a merely physical death, he is offering an alternative future in which “life” reigns over “death,” which I believe has always been God’s desire.
Life and Death as Ways of Being
It’s hard for me to connect all the dots in this post, because I’m building on other things, as well, from other scriptures, such as 1 Timothy and 1 John. My posts Love Is the Goal and Walking in the Light might help with some of this, but let me see if I can summarize:
- “Unity” for Christians comes from being in God, being in Christ, and/or being in the Father. (John 5, 17, etc.; 1 John)
- God is light. Walking in the light is being in God and knowing God. (1 John)
- Walking in the light is living like Christ. (1 John)
- Evidence of being in God/Christ/the Father is love — love for each other, neighbors, God — which is the goal of God’s Mission. (John, 1 John, 1 Timothy)
- Eternal life, likewise, is being in God/Christ/the Father, which means eternal life is about love.
Eternal life in God is about love, which isn’t primarily about physical life. I’m not saying there isn’t some physical embodiment in there. I’m not saying that there isn’t some kind of resurrection. I’m definitely not saying physical life doesn’t matter! At the very least, there are physical aspects to love; love manifests in embodied ways in this creation in how we love each other. Gospel eternal life, however — the eternal life we find in Christ — isn’t a physical life that needs to be balanced by physical death. Rather, it’s about life through love completely overcoming “death,” and that death isn’t physical, in the same way that the life isn’t physical.
We’re talking about being dead as a “way of being” in the same way that I mentioned earlier concerning life — eternal life is a way of being. In this case, I understand death as a way of being that is captive to a world in which love doesn’t win out. It’s being captive to a world in which violence is the greatest power instead of love.
We can’t balance that kind of a world. People who are being oppressed by violence and death can’t just have love come in in moderation and balance that out for them. That’s not how the world works. Physical death can be balanced by physical life — by renewal; burn down one forest, and watch another spring up in its place by the nutrition that is provided by the ashes. Unfortunately, that’s not how oppression works. That’s not how spiritual and emotional death and trauma work. That’s not how toxicity and abuse work. That kind of violence and death can’t be balanced out by love. Rather, it can be overthrown by love. It can be overpowered by love. It can be put to death by love.
That’s the Gospel eternal life that’s being offered. It’s a life that leans so far into love that it actually conquers death, and in that kind of a world, there’s no downside to doing away with balance in favor of love. There’s no downside to a world that is part of a dominion of grace.
Now But Not Yet
We know that’s not the present reality. Right now, we search for balance in coping mechanisms, emotional support, safe spaces, and trying to be anti-shame, but what Paul argues for is a now but not yet sort of mentality that says even though it’s not the reality right now — even though suffering and evil exist right now and the world says violence and death is the supreme power — somehow, in who we are as disciples of Christ, we should be living into a dominion of life. We should be living into a kind of life that conquers death in a way that doesn’t balance out oppression and evil with some good but actually, in our communities, throws death into the pit in favor of life through love.
I understand that doesn’t exist right now, but it ought to exist right now. It ought to be the reality in some communities, and eventually, it ought to be the reality in all of creation. Creation groans for this reconciliation, which leads to a transformative, embodied experience that the New Testament calls new creation.
Expressions of the Gospel that focus on a balanced life and death — that distance us from present responsibility by envisioning some eternal life somewhere else apart from this creation — those expressions of the Gospel fail to recognize that real, eternal life conquers death now. If we want to embody the life of Christ, we need to get away from this idea that love needs to be balanced by evil. That’s just a way of justifying our evil actions.
Real love doesn’t need to be balanced by evil or hate. Real love creates healthy balance in life by throwing out violence and death. The Gospel invites us to an eternal life that gives life in such abundance that love overrides death in real, embodied ways right now and rejects the idea that evil is a necessary balance to love.
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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on December 6, 2021.