This life is like a pendulum (or you can look at it as a balancing scale, if you like). We are always swinging from one extreme of a pendulum to another. As many theologians will perceptively point out, we are always either in the danger of trusting in our own ability to keep the law (pelagianism) or becoming complacent in the name of surrendering to grace (antinomianism). Some people will react to complacency by urging us to be radical for Christ. Others will react to radical Christianity by urging us to be ordinary. But what if life is not really like a pendulum? What if the location of true holiness is not midway between two sinful extremes? What if we are describing logically what can only be perceived and understood spiritually? I believe that while this call to Christian balance is full of good intentions, it is often rooted in an unbiblical understanding of sin and righteousness.
BLAME IT ON ARISTOTLE
In Nicomachean Ethics, this is how Aristotle describes virtue:
“Virtue is a purposive disposition, lying in a mean that is relative to us and determined by a rational principle, by that which a prudent man would use to determine it.”
In other words, “Because practical circumstances vary a great deal, there are no absolute rules of conduct to follow. Instead, we can only observe that right conduct consists of some sort of mean between the extremes of deficiency and excess. For instance, courage consists in finding a mean between the extremes of cowardice and rashness, though the appropriate amount of courage varies from one situation to another.” While Aristotle’s description of virtue sounds reasonable, it is based on the FALSE assumption that human beings are born with the innate ability (or potential) to be morally upright. The Bible tells us otherwise:
“All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” [Romans 3:12]
Yet, it is not very uncommon to find Christians speaking about true virtue and holiness as if they are calculated choices that can be attained through constant practice and great prudence, devoid of the Holy Spirit’s help. For instance, we are always complaining about the extremes that we should avoid when we are dealing or reacting to some issues. And this is where the pendulum language comes in.
However, the secret to “Christian Balance” is the PERSON of the Christian lifestyle. The secret to “Christian Balance” is DEPENDENCE upon the Holy Spirit.
THE MOST OVERLOOKED PERSON OF THE TRINITY
It is in the abiding that true holiness is found. The secret to Christian balance is not a secret, but a person, the Holy Spirit. There is therefore no such thing as balance, or a pendulum to measure our behavior by. Not really. True “Christian balance” means being filled and led by the spirit. It means abiding in Christ so that we may bear fruit. Our focus should not be to try as much as we can to avoid extremes and identify a middle ground. Our focus should be to repent of all extremes and constantly seek God’s will, giving thanks for any form of moderation that emerges as a result.
The language of extremes and moderation is a scientific language. It is our best attempt at describing how holiness looks and doesn’t look like. However, the language of the Spirit is redemptive. In the Spirit, we are not holy because we are balanced, we appear balanced because we are holy. We are not holy because we are sober, we appear sober because we are holy. The scientific or Aristotelian language is a “do” language. But the language of the Spirit is a “be” language.
Paul says to the Ephesians and to us;
“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but BE filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melo-dy to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [Ephesians 5:18-18]
We are not holy because we avoid alcohol and debauchery. Neither are we holy because we address one another in psalms and hymns. We are not even holy because we give thanks to God in everything. No. We avoid drunkenness and debauchery because we are filled with the Spirit. We give thanks in everything because we are filled with the Spirit. We “do” because we “be” (because we “are”).
THE ONLY ACCEPTABLE EXTREME
Paul does not temper drunkenness by advising us to drink in moderation, he counters drunkenness by exhorting us to be filled with the Spirit. This is the acceptable radical. The acceptable extreme. You can never have an excess of the Spirit. Therefore, when we understand that true holiness is from the Holy Spirit, then our focus will be more on seeking to submit to the leading of the Spirit than simply seeking to conform to the visible appearances of holiness. In other words, we should find ourselves praying more than we presently do. For prayer is the ultimate expression of our dependence. True dependence has nothing to do with doing nothing. It has everything to do with following the leading of the Spirit.
So, are you holy? Are you filled with the Spirit? Are you dependent on Him? If we learn to look at obedience in this LIGHT, we will speak less of finding balance and more of being filled with the Spirit. We will focus less on avoiding extremes, and more on abiding in Christ. We will find ourselves praying more, trusting more, and hoping more that Christ will be our holiness rather than doing the “holy things” and trying to find our assurance in our ability to check off a holiness list.
BALANCE STILL MATTERS
Even so, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Moderation is an admirable Christian virtue that we should all aspire to. Moderation is what “self-control” or “temperance” looks like in practice. However, how we try to attain this moderation is what I am concerned about in this post. My aim is to remind us that self-control is not self-controlled, it is God-controlled. It is a fruit of the Spirit, not a fruit of self, experience or calculation.
We are called to be filled with the Spirit, not to balance pendulums.
6 thoughts on “The Myth of Christian Balance”
i think, a person either lives a balanced life or not.
thinkers do not issue with the moral reasoning of balance. The challenge is always the “door” or method.
For instance you might defer with Aristotle who proposed people become moral/balanced in their life though legislation of government. Plato his student differed with him in “the republic” and proposed that people live balanced lives as a result of education. in both discourses-which i pray you have read-the issue is the soul is what needs changing.
You have tried to point to a method of moral reasoning by going the existential way of calling on an agent (the holy spirit in this case) and denying human will by labeling it pelagic (even though there is no record of works by Pelagious that exist today). You then swing the pendulum to the extreme hence being norminic of total work of the Holy Spirit.
i like Ecclesiates 7:16 and Titus 2:1-3:7 i’d be quick to notice the number of times the holy spirit is mentioned in the passage of Titus that admonishes us (Christians) on how to live in view of you article.
Again i’d have issue with challenging knowledge with truth or truth with knowledge when you say Aristotle’s knowledge is based on a false assumption. his assumption is based on knowledge not belief. the same way when you answered questions in your exam papers. you did not believe what you wrote, you wrote what you knew. your assumption to your exam questions was based on knowledge not truth
pardon the typos
Alex, the Holy Spirit is “mentioned” once in that Titus passage. I hope you looked at HOW and WHY He was mentioned and not just “the number of times” He was mentioned. Paul presents Him (the Spirit) as the power and basis for all those admonitions in Titus 2:1-3:7.
Also, I have not said that the human will is pelagic, I have said that human will ALONE or as the ultimate BASIS for change is pelagic. Big difference.
the will alone part hadn’t come out clearly in your introduction.but i agree, it is the holy spirit working with our free will to bring balance/peace in our life or us (because of God’s grace) working with the holy spirit to bring balance in our life.
Yeah, it is ironical how we are averse to deviations from what we consider ordinary. Thank God that as Christians our idea of the ideal is fairly universal (thanks to Scripture). Many of us are aware that we are living below the ideal, though we consider those who actually go for it as bordering on the extreme, though we might never say it. I’m reminded of how much stick we give the puritans, for example.
When we talk of balance, then we have to define whether our point of balance is the point where the ‘ideal’ is or the ‘ordinary’ point, where everyone is. Definitely it ought to be the scripture-defined ideal.
When it comes to the faith, we have to strive for the ideal, which is sure to be considered by the spiritual sluggard as extreme and to be admired by the properly spiritually ambitious man. As you say, we can never be too filled by the spirit. It would be silly to seek a partial obedience so that you are balanced, if you are a Christian. If we are filled and the word is dwelling in us richly then we will love the Bible and its doctrines more, burst into hymns and spiritual songs more, love the brothers more, give thanks more, etc. To the spiritual sluggard (bless the term) we will be speaking Christianese and being over-spiritual.
It’s got to depend on which audience we want to depend more: the earthly one or the heavenly One. Well, unless we can follow the Spirit too much.
Thanks for the timely write, bro. May we be taught well by the scriptures, to avoid the lopsidedness of partial truths (e.g. antinomianism vs. licentiousness) yet in our practical living not be so wary of balance that we fail to give ourselves fully to holy promptings.
Well…Iv been having this qstn for the last couple of days…Pertaining ‘becoming like the Gentile’ in order to preach the Gospel… and ‘Being holy as He Is holy…’ I have been asking for the balance…where I draw the line That I shldnt cross in my becoming like… What you are saying is that there really is no line?? That it all depends with what God will direct me to do??meaning that I shld seek to always keep my mind stayed on Him and my life filled with Him?
You are an instrument of the Lord!
Bless you Cornell!