Unlearning reductionism and opening our hearts to what God is doing among us

Written by Joel Zantingh

There’s an old saying: “God made us in God’s image … and we’ve been returning the favour ever since.” It is terrible how accurate it is.

I can make God in my image through my usage of Scripture, my definition of church or mission, or my evangelism tactics. I can make God in my image by my inability to heed the prophets’ warnings to God’s people, such as warning them not to neglect caring for the poor or exclude other nations from God’s kingdom. And so on.

And this is what makes it so problematic to have tasted something of the goodness of God’s kingdom as a follower of Jesus. I invariably want to reduce it down to the framework that I know and like the best.

Even the practice of praying the rich words, given to us by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-13) is prone to my selfish reversal. I want it to say, “My will be done for your kingdom, and in my imagination of heaven, as I want it to be on earth.”

There’s no way for me to grasp the depth and truth of the kingdom I’m invited to pray for without laying down some preconceptions first. What can I do about this?

Confessing my own lack

The idea of lack used in place of sin to describe “the struggle within ourselves” was introduced to me by philosopher Peter Rollins. It’s not just the horrible immoral stuff I did before I came to Jesus (or still do and regularly need to confess), but sin represents that broader sense of my own struggle in being a representation of Christ to the world around me. I am yet a work-in-progress.

To quote from “The Way of Jesus,” a framework I have found helpful in my daily faith journey, I can say with utmost honesty that “I am [still] learning to be like Jesus in my attitudes, behaviours, and character.” I have not arrived yet.

My lack frames my struggle of life and living faith, whether it’s how I reflect Jesus, yield to the Spirit, or demonstrate the Spirit’s fruit. And so, I cannot, in my self, fully know the full kingdom which God is in the process of building, because my own lack prevents me from experiencing it fully, as of yet.

Even as I could summarize God’s kingdom as the experience of God’s eternal, self-giving love, I agree with the Apostle Paul” that I have a long way to go: “For now, I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12, ESV).

Growing my church and cultural repertoire 

This “repertoire” concept is a beautiful expression I picked up from Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin K. Mayers in their book, Ministering Cross-Culturally. What if, instead of asking God for more of what I already have already experienced with the kingdom, I started asking, where is God’s kingdom working in ways I don’t yet understand?

As a follower of Jesus from the Evangelical tradition, for instance, what can I learn from other traditions vastly different from my own? Are there expressions of the kingdom in the Orthodox, Catholic, Reformed, Free-Church, or Pentecostal-Charismatic expressions that give me a better sense of the true mosaic of God’s Church, engaged in mission?

As a Western, Caucasian follower of Jesus, what is the experience of the kingdom among other groups? Among people vastly different from me? Could I learn to think about their experience with the kingdom of God as having an equal place in my heart and mind as the known and familiar experiences?

Here is how the Filipina theologian Melba Padilla Maggay calls for a celebration of these differences in her book, Global Kingdom, Global People: “Rather than homogeneity or hegemony, we, as God’s people are called to live fully in our cultures, where ‘part of the mystery of the incarnation is that we are most universal when we are most particular.’” I agree with Maggay that this is what is happening in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, where, as she puts it, “…by supernatural means people of various tongues hear the same message in their own language, a startling unity through diversity”.

This is the gift of kingdom richness that comes from cooperating and serving within the aggregate beauty of God’s intercultural mosaic. To reject conformity to one cultural form is to begin to experience the real gift of living for the King to whom belongs “all the Kingdom, power and glory, forever and ever.”

Looking beyond the church

It’s a common mistake, to think that the church is somehow the kingdom, but this is not the case. All creation “declares his glory” (Psalm 19:1), and every person we meet bears God’s image (Genesis 1:27).

These days, in what is referred to by many as the post-Christendom era, it becomes critical for all of us to gain a sense of God’s work taking place in God’s world. God’s kingdom is not limited to the events and programs and activities of the church or the one per cent of formal church leaders.

I’m practicing catching others in kingdom demonstration. I thank my physiotherapist, massage therapist, and psychotherapist for being agents of healing. Yes, I have experienced supernatural aspects of healing, but God’s kingdom shows up in the natural forms of healing too.

Recently, I witnessed a restaurant host show incredible self-sacrificial love to a guest. “Jesus would be proud of you,” I told the host afterward. I am learning to see the goodness of God in image-bearing lives demonstrating the kingdom before they even know it as such.

You and I can live as agents of God’s kingdom by understanding that God has sent us to bless and invite others to follow Jesus, not in coercive ways, but in everyday simple words and actions that demonstrate the good news.

The kingdom transcends our lack, limited church, and cultural repertoire, and our tendencies to look within the walls of the existing church. Understanding this helps us cease feeling threatened when we see the kingdom demonstrated beyond our known frameworks.

What will God teach us next, in pursuit of the kingdom building that’s happening in heaven and showing up in unexpected ways all around us, if we would but take the time to perceive it?

Joel Zantingh is the Canadian Coordinator for the World Evangelical Alliance’s Peace & Reconciliation Network.