In my last post, I offered the first reason why, especially during this Christmas season, it is important to remember Jesus is fully human. In this article I suggest a second—to not do so means we minimize the worth of God’s creation (including ourselves). The incarnation is a constant reminder that God, more than anyone, values the physical world just as much as the spiritual world. (I first posted this series a year ago, just after I began writing my blog. The blog's readership has grown quite a bit since then, and so I'm reposting this series again for those who began reading in 2017.)
The Gnostics reject the idea that God has any regard for the material. They believe that everything physical is evil, and so is not valuable to God. They maintain that all that matters is the spiritual realm (no pun intended). Christians who have this gnostic tendency today have been known to say something like, “All that is important is God, His Word, and people’s souls. Everything else is going to burn.” Such a denigration of the physical aspect of creation may seem to exalt God, but in fact it has at least seven implications that are hazardous to our physical and spiritual health. I will suggest three this week and the remaining four ramifications next week.
1. Christian Gnosticism focuses growth in Christ around only “spiritual” activities (prayer, bible study, church involvement). To them, the body is nothing but a limitation. It gets in the way by needing food and shelter, and so we have to go to work instead of doing “spiritual” activities. It gets in the way by requiring we rest, so we are not able to do more “spiritual” things. They agree with Plato—“the body is the prison of the soul.”
But Jesus taking on real flesh-and-blood body and living a “spiritual” life through his body, rather than in spite of it, shows this Platonic approach to spiritual formation is simply false. No contemporary thinker has done more to show the important role the body plays in growth in Christ than Christian philosopher Dallas Willard in his masterful book, The Spirit of the Disciplines.
2. Christian Gnosticism leads us to reject many of the physical pleasures God gave us as good gifts (food, drink, sex, etc.), which we are free to enjoy in the appropriate context. A proper understanding of the goodness of all creation, including the physical realm, liberates us to fully enjoy being incarnate, seeing even our bodies and their pleasures as blessings from the Lord. Jesus’ humanity reminds us of this.
3. Christian Gnosticism devalues our work, believing nothing we do in the physical realm has any spiritual significance. Contemporary Gnostics divide work into two categories. Some work is “secular”—working as a merchant or a mason or a marketing executive. Because vocations are “of this world,” they have no spiritual significance. Each secular occupation is “mundane” work (from the Latin word mundi which means “world.”) They hold that other work is “sacred” or “spiritual,” such as being a missionary. It is holy, a calling, and deeply valued by God.
Following from this, for most of us, Sunday becomes the only important day for “spiritual” things. What we do the rest of the week, starting with “Monday” (again, from the Latin mundi) is not spiritually important. The only way to redeem our work Monday through Friday is to make enough money to give some to those doing “spiritual” work.
Minimizing “secular” work is not very encouraging to the vast majority of Christians who have not had a “call” to “the ministry” yet are passionate, and very good at the work they spend many hours each week doing. We would all like to see our work as valuable to the Lord.
The good news is that Jesus coming as a human shows the fallacy in this Gnostic way of thinking. It indicates God values the physical and “mundane” just as much as the “spiritual.” As a result, what we do in our physical bodies is “redeemed”—it can again be seen as “holy,” “sacred” and important to God. God calls the plumber, pilot, and performing artist to their vocations just as much as the pastor.
The sacredness of the Christian’s everyday work was a main theme of the Protestant Reformation. Our language of work now reflects this. The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare meaning “to call” and the word “profession” is grounded in the idea that through one’s work one is professing their allegiance to His call and Lordship. We all have vocations and professions, meaning we all have work God has called us to do, and by doing it well, “as unto the Lord” (Col. 3:23) we obey, serve and honor our Lord.
Next week I will suggest the other four ways the Christmas story corrects our gnostic tendencies and their harmful effects.
Until then, grace and peace.