Try Being Less Spiritual and More Decent

“What then should we do?”

That was the cry of the crowds who were touched by John the Baptist’s message in the region of the Jordan, that God’s ax was laid at the root of the trees, and those that produced no good fruit would be cut down (Luke 3:9).

What are those good fruits? What are we to do?

Given the reputation of John as a man made holy by his retreat into the wilderness and famously austere lifestyle, those who asked that question must have expected John to say, “Become spiritual by denying your flesh. Cut yourself off from the taint of society, and starve the impulses of your physical self. Thereby one obtains righteousness.”

But John doesn’t. He says instead, “If you find that you have surplus clothing or food, share it. If you are a civil servant, be fair and honest in your dealings with the public. If you are a soldier, with power and privilege, don’t oppress folks.”

In short, “The ‘good fruit’ God looks for is being a decent human being.” So, perhaps John is telling—even warning us—be less spiritual and more decent!

If we are looking to Christianity for a core belief—for a distinguishing doctrine—for a teaching that sets it apart among world religions—it may well be this simple, but neglected truth: God does not call us to be spiritual by being more than human, but by being good at what God made us to be in the first place.

All about us is the evidence of the destruction caused by people who are striving to climb a ladder to heaven by trying to rise above their essential human condition. Through the history of religions there has always been this disastrous strain of thought that says material stuff is bad and only the rarified, invisible dimension is good. The most common human emotions and drives are all bad, and only pure rationality, whatever that is, is good. Horrible are the results when people seek to become divine by denigrating the common stuff of everyday human life.

God wants good fruits of decency and common, domestic variety compassion. Climbing the staircase to God takes us in the opposite direction.

How many times do we have to see people preoccupied with trying to obey the Bible, or working out airtight doctrine, or suppressing their hunger for companionship or sexuality, doing things to the people around them that are heartbreaking, cruel, and even deadly, before we realize something is dreadfully wrong? Our inhumanity to one another is, so very often, engendered by our self-inflicted and wrong-headed attempt to transcend our humanity—to become some sort of super human beings. Think of the Magdalene Nurseries in Ireland, Palestinians languishing for decades in refugee camps, children abused by priests struggling to keep their vows of celibacy, and the mounting death toll of the innocent victims of terrorists all over the world–all of these things caused by those who were striving to be more godly, or to live for some “higher cause.” One church historian described this sort of religious fanaticism as people who “do what God would do if God only had all the facts.”


The infant Jesus lies in the manger. Let’s wake up. Let’s never forget the point! God so loved the world. The Word became flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth. We do not climb out of our humanity to God. We receive. God comes to inhabit our humanity—the humanity God created and blessed in the first place.

Only when we learn to love our humanity as much as God does can we learn to trust God’s forgiveness of our frailty. Only when we get comfortable with our frailty and limitations, can we learn to accept the help that we must have from one another—from other humans who are ungodly, just like us. Then things like simple sharing and fairness will look more like the noble things they truly are. They form the good fruit God is looking for in us.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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