The following article by Kevin Emmert first appeared in CT magazine 20th October 2014, and continues our cautionary theme around the meaning of discipleship…
We are united with a Christ who seems not to have done much of note for most of his life.
I was in youth group when I first heard that God had an extraordinary plan for my life. This plan would include seeing revival, winning converts, helping the poor, and traveling overseas to preach the gospel, dig wells, and serve orphans. I attended youth conferences like Acquire the Fire where I learned what it meant to be an “on-fire-for-God” Christian, and was then sent out to be—in the words of Delirious?—a “history maker.”
The idea that I had an incredible destiny was only reinforced by my own study of Scripture. When I read the Book of Acts for the first time as a senior in high school, I concluded that the lives and habits of the first Christians were the norm. Like Jesus, they healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out demons, opposed corrupt power structures, and preached to the masses. As Christians, our lives should take on the same quality as Jesus’ right?
could it be that the Jesus of the Bible, the Jesus of history, is less extraordinary than the Jesus of Christian conferences and our guilty consciences?
About a year ago, in the CT cover story “Here Come the Radicals,” Matthew Lee Anderson explored “radical” Christianity books from David Platt, Francis Chan, Shane Claiborne, and Kyle Idleman. Radicals, he noted, aim to understand what Jesus really meant in his teachings, what “radical abandonment to Jesus really looks like,” and “what it really means to follow Jesus.” For them, the “real” Christian life is radically abnormal.
Right now we’re in the middle of a backlash, with critics asking if radical Christianity is realistic or even sustainable. Instead of Radical, Greater, Weird, and Not a Fan, now we’re getting Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life by Michael Kelley, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World by Michael Horton, Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down by Tony Merida, and The Making of an Ordinary Saint by Nathan Foster. These books—even when they disagree—all have important and biblical things to say about ethics, discipleship, spiritual growth, mission, and church life. But they generally don’t focus on how the Incarnation determines the nature and trajectory of our lives as Christians.
I’m not talking about “What Would Jesus Do.” The doctrine of union with Christ, a major theme throughout the New Testament, is much deeper. In a nutshell, it tells us that we are one with Christ, like a husband and wife are one flesh. Christ lives in us, and we live in him. What’s ours is his, and what’s his is ours. The Son of God joined himself to humanity so that we might be joined to his divinity. But this doctrine doesn’t simply describe an association; it tells us that we actually participate in Christ’s life. We go where he goes—from the Cross to the grave to new life and the heavenly places. Our lives take on the very quality of his.
So will our lives be extraordinary? Most likely not. Most of his wasn’t.
The Incarnation in Full View
Jesus Christ is God incarnate. That’s the most extraordinary thing I can imagine. God the Son became a man; eternal, incorruptible Word put on frail human flesh. The infinite God subjected himself to the limitations of our world. Yet he remained fully God. He walked among us, performed countless miracles, publically shamed demons, confounded the most erudite men in his nation, and rose from the grave after being three days dead. And then he ascended into heaven and took a seat next to God the Father. His earthly life was one of a kind. He wasn’t simply a history maker; he forever altered history.
But this is only one part of the story, one volume in the series, as it were. Certain evidence—and the lack thereof—suggest that Christ’s life was also ordinary. Apart from Christ’s birth and a brief episode at the temple when he was 12, the Gospels tell us nothing of Jesus’ life before he entered ministry at about age 30. Sure, we know he was a carpenter (Mark 6:3) and that he regularly attended synagogue (Luke 4:16). He must have been fairly educated to be able to read Hebrew scrolls (Luke 4:16–20), so he most likely went to school. But apart from a few minor details like these, we know nothing about Jesus’ adolescent and young-adult years.
Maybe because there’s little from Jesus’ pre-ministry years that was “written that you may believe” (John 20:31). But the silence about this period in Jesus’ life indicates that the majority of his life—not just his childhood—was ordinary and unremarkable, at least when compared to his ministry years. After all, when Jesus started his ministry, people responded, “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3) The crowd’s response implies Jesus didn’t stand out—at all. He was just like everyone else. So naturally, people were shocked when he revealed a different side of himself. They couldn’t believe that such an ordinary person, a carpenter from the small village of Nazareth, the son of Mary—who was likely suspect, at one point or another, for conceiving out of wedlock—could preach like the prophets of old and perform miracles like superstars in the Hebrew hall of fame.
When God the Son embraced our humanity, he didn’t just become a human. He took on our broken humanity and everything it entails, even the ordinary and mundane aspects of human life. He embraced work, family life, learning, growing, and monotony. Jesus lived an ordinary life for most of his years, and in so doing affirmed its goodness.
It’s Great to Be Ordinary
If Christ is the prototype for what God intended for humanity, our lives will certainly be marked by the ordinary and the mundane. In fact, the Incarnation tells us that God prefers to work through humble, run-of-the-mill circumstances.
Fourth century martyr Theodotus of Ancyra explained it like this: In the Incarnation, God “chose surroundings that were poor and simple, so ordinary as to be almost unnoticed, so that people would know it was the Godhead alone that had changed the world.”
The unfortunate, commonplace, or embarrassing conditions of our lives then, do not limit God’s work. We don’t have to be ‘somebodies’. The Incarnation turns the logic of our world on its head. As Paul said, “The weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25). God loves to work in and through the ordinary.
Still, many of us feel we would be more pleasing to God if our lives were extraordinary, if we were involved in some spectacular ministry, whatever that means. We like to venerate celebrity Christians—sometimes to our detriment. All too often we iconize people who lead megachurches and influential parachurch organizations, serve orphans overseas, or move into impoverished neighborhoods to minister to underprivileged minorities. If you’re like me, you’re probably filled with mixed emotions when you read the stories of these Christians: you’re encouraged, challenged, and perhaps overwhelmed. You might feel empowered by their work: “If they can do that, so can I!” You’re probably challenged: “Maybe God is calling me to serve more.” But you probably feel bewildered and somewhat ashamed as well: “My life doesn’t look like that. I’m a lousy Christian.”
Thankfully, the gospel doesn’t require us to live an exceptional life. It actually points us in the opposite direction. Paul encourages us to “lead a quiet life.” He explains, “You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thess. 4:11–12). Some commentators interpret Paul’s instruction this way: Try earnestly, and consider it an honor, to live an ordinary life.
Mother Teresa, in her book No Greater Love, encourages us to do the same:
Do not pursue spectacular deeds…. In the work we have to do it does not matter how small and humble it may be, make it Christ’s love in action…. What matters is the gift of yourself, the degree of love that you put into each one of your actions.
That is good news! The Christian stay-at-home mom or dad, barista, janitor, or injured construction worker on disability can lead just as meaningful and “Christian” life as the business person, academic, social worker, or conference speaker. The homely side of the Incarnation tells us it’s okay to attend an ordinary church, to have an ordinary job, to live in an ordinary house in an ordinary suburb. We can spread the gospel and the love of Christ in whatever context God has placed us.
In no way, however, does this justify spiritual lethargy. God wants all Christians to embody and live out the gospel in some form or another. And to be sure, he indeed calls certain people to express their faith in singular ways. If so, “God will surely let him understand and in that case will also help him further,” as philosopher Søren Kierkegaard explained. But for most of us, life will be ordinary.
At the same time, our lives will often be necessarily countercultural. Christian faith defies cultural norms and human reason. We profess faith in a triune God and in a Saviour who is both fully human and fully divine. Scripture calls us to celebrate crucifixion, rejoice in suffering, and hope for a physical resurrection. It instructs us to love our enemies, help the poor, care for orphans and widows, and tend to the sick.
Our faith is radical indeed when compared to the world around us. But radical is not synonymous with extraordinary, as some are wont to conclude. Neither is ordinary synonymous with complacent or hypocritical. In Christ, we can live meaningful, gospel-centered lives in the midst of the ordinary and the mundane. That plain truth is a relief.
Kevin P. Emmert is assistant online editor for CT. You can follow him on Twitter @Kevin_P_Emmert.