The story of the rich man and Lazarus is more than a bracing reminder about our duty to the poor; it is a cautionary tale about misjudging our spiritual condition.
In Jesus’s day, material wealth and well-being were commonly assumed to be divine blessings for personal righteousness: the rich were rich because of their moral virtue, and the poor, poor because of their sin. The rich man had bought that line only to learn too late that he had been wrong, tragically so. Sadly, it is a line selling well today, as evidenced by the popularity of the Prosperity Gospel and its various permutations.
Jesus told his disciples that there will be people at the threshold of heaven, claiming to have done great things in his name, only to be told, “I never knew you”—people like the rich man whose spiritual valuation was all wrong.
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As we enter the New Year, these warnings should prompt us to consider our own spiritual well-being.
If pressed, would you say that you are spiritually healthy, sick, on life support, or, like the rich man, a dead man walking? Based on what vital signs?
I can imagine many folks considering themselves “healthy” based on some combination of religious activities: church involvement, bible reading, worship attendance, tithing, keeping the commandments, probably the very things the rich man relied on which, in the end, didn’t serve him well. And it is not hard to understand why.
Since religious activity can be the product of spiritual formation or behavior modification, taken by itself, it is not a reliable indicator of our spiritual state. Basing our spiritual health solely on religious activity is like basing our physical health solely on physical activity. While diminished physical ability can be indicative of a serious medical condition, many times it isn’t. Lance Armstrong was competing in, and winning, world cycling championships while harboring a virulent, undetected cancer. In the same way, religious activity alone, despite fervor and effectiveness, may never reveal a moldering interior life.
Understanding our physical risks requires that we undergo intrusive procedures—blood tests, colonoscopies, pelvic exams, and mammograms—involving needles, x-rays, scopes, and probes that can be uncomfortable, painful, and embarrassing. Understanding our spiritual risks requires an equally intrusive and sometimes unpleasant procedure: probing beneath the surface of religiosity and moralism to the temper of our heart—the attitudes, affections, and motivations that shape what we are and what we do.
Spiritual formation is an inside-out process. It begins in the head, transforming our thoughts in how we view ourselves and the world; proceeds to the heart, transforming our character as manifested in “fruits of the Spirit”; and flows out to the hands, transforming our activities from works leading to death and works of righteousness to “fruits of the Kingdom.”
Given that Jesus regarded “fruits” as the touchstone of spiritual formation, we might consider how they might apply in a year-end spiritual assessment.
Fruits of the Spirit
“Fruits of the Spirit” are about character marked by a spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. To test those fruits, we might ask ourselves how they have developed over the past year. For example:
Is our attitude toward our neighbors and enemies more loving?
Do we find it easier to experience joy and peace when things aren’t going our way?
Do we have more patience with frustrating people and circumstances?
Are we better at responding kindly to unkind people and returning good for evil?
Have we become more faithful to the things we know as true?
Are we better able to say no to harmful thoughts, desires, and temptations?
We also might ask others (spouse, close friends, and family members) how they think we’re doing in those areas.
Fruits of the Kingdom
Fruits of the kingdom are about multiplication—that is, growing God’s kingdom by leading individuals into a life-long relationship with Jesus Christ and redeeming nations through the social, political, and cultural institutions that make them. Admittedly, any numerical measure of those fruits can be difficult, if not impossible, to determine for a couple of reasons.
First, we don’t produce them, we only bear them; they are the work of God and only he knows the results. Thus, we may never know how we have drawn people closer to the kingdom or further away; nor may we know the kingdom influence we have had on the wider culture. Second, even if we could know those things for the present generation, we couldn’t know the effect of our spiritual legacy on the generations to come.
In Kenya it is said that you can count the number of seeds in a mango, but you can’t count the number of mangos in a seed. Put another way, you can count the number of disciples in a church, but you can’t count the number of churches in a disciple. Indeed, who could have foreseen the number churches that would owe their existence to the legacy of St. Paul, the Wesley brothers, or Billy Graham? Who could number the churches that will be spawned by one true disciple today? Answer, no one.
This side of heaven, material measures such as souls “won,” baptisms, membership, confirmation, ministry involvement, and churches planted will be defective, if not deceptive indicators of kingdom fruit. That’s why, as St.Theresa of Calcutta so well understood, in the divine calculus it is not material success that matters, only faithfulness.
Faithfulness, as a measure of kingdom fruit, is the alignment of our head, heart, and hands with the will of God—particularly, as it relates to incarnating the kingdom through the Great Commission and the Cultural Commission*. To sample that fruit we might ask ourselves,
Do we regularly seek God’s will through prayer, study, and contemplative thought, and do we follow it?
Are our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors scripturally grounded?
Do we know our spiritual gifts and are we using them?
Does our faith inform the way we live at home, work, school, the ball field, the mall, etc.?
Do we have a heart for the unchurched, de-churched, and re-churched? Are we intentional in forging relationships with them?
Do we strive to understand others so we engage them meaningfully and winsomely?
Are we ready to counter falsehood with truth and grace?
Do we promote the sanctity of life, religious freedom, and sexual purity in natural marriage through our profession and practice?
Do we take seriously our duty to the poor, imprisoned, orphaned, and widowed?
Do we approach creation as a resource to use, enrich, and replenish?
By periodically rating ourselves on each of these, say, from one to ten, we can gain a sense of how we are growing (stagnating or declining) in “fruits of the kingdom” and identify areas for needed spiritual improvement. Realizing, as already mentioned, that unless they are accompanied by fruits of the Spirit, they can be a misleading indicator of spiritual fitness.
Granted, subjecting ourselves to such scrutiny can be inconvenient and unpleasant, disabusing us of cozy, but wrong, conclusions about our spiritual well-being. Yet we ignore it at our peril.
The danger of the unexamined life, as Socrates concluded, is “a life not worth living.” But it’s worse than that, much worse. It’s coming to the end of it and hearing our Lord say, “I never knew you.”
* The Cultural Commission, given to Adam and Eve in the garden and to the apostles through Jesus’ command to make disciples “of all nations,” is our mission to flourish creation by creating culture in a way that restrains evil, upholds justice, inspires virtue, and promotes the common good until that day when what God wills done is done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a stained glass window depicting Jesus and the rich man in Saint Wendelin Church, Saint Henry, Ohio.