Guest Post by Dr. Amy Stumpf
Six stalks of bamboo sit on my desk. Three are just regular bamboo stalks that grow straight up. The other three are slightly more expensive “lucky” bamboo stalks that have grown in some decorative shapes. That bamboo didn’t just randomly grow into an artistically twisted pattern. I suppose that long ago, in its younger days as a bamboo sapling, a bamboo engineer tied the new shoots onto a form. As the shoots grew, the new growth was tied and tethered to the desired form. And now the result is a stalk of bamboo that looks like the form (in my vase, a heart and a spiral) rather than a straight stick. I call this curly bamboo my “spiritual discipline bamboo” because it reminds me of the nature of the spiritual disciplines. If we are to grow, against our nature, into the likeness of Jesus Christ, we have to tie and tether ourselves to His form. The disciplines are those ties and tethers that hold us to the form of Christ so that we grow away from our natural bend, into Christ’s supernatural bend. The form is Christ; the ties are the disciplines.
As I think about the various “ties” and “tethers” that the Bible teaches, of course the traditional disciplines of prayer, scripture intake, meditation, worship, tithing, service, fasting, come to mind. But I have become increasingly troubled that we have long neglected or categorized as something other, the biblical discipline of justice seeking. When I review the lists of disciplines presented by the “spiritual discipline gurus” like Donald Whitney, Richard Foster, and Dallas Willard, I see nowhere “justice seeking.” I’m sure they would all be in favor, even wildly enthusiastic, about justice. Who doesn’t love justice? And I am not saying that Christians aren’t getting serious about doing the works of justice; in fact, the works of justice seeking are on the rise – I work with college students, and they ALL want to be activists and world changers. But I am saying that we have usually failed to understand justice seeking as a spiritual discipline.
When we do see justice seeking as a spiritual discipline it elevates and enriches our work. A spiritual discipline requires practice, patience, and intentional submission of the discipline to the Holy Spirit so that it becomes transformative and not just sentimental. And most maturing Christians don’t think that the disciplines are optional, or some have the “gift” or “calling” of a discipline, and others are off the hook. No, we think the disciplines are necessary for all followers of Jesus Christ, as a means of bending us into the likeness of Christ. No Christians should look like wild bamboo.
Understanding justice seeking as a spiritual discipline can also help dissipate some of the suspicions that still linger over the issues of justice. Not infrequently I encounter people who are concerned that my enthusiasm about activism may be a mark of liberalism. But when justice seeking is not focused on the “good cause” but a means to focus on the Good Shepherd, then justice seeking can no longer be relegated to some form of radicalism.
Throughout the scriptures, seeking justice is a primary way that God’s people practiced and established their bend toward God. Most every time God is dealing with His people’s spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, giving, serving, and other disciplines that bent them toward piety, He also strongly connected it with justice seeking; and when they bent away from justice seeking, God said they were falling away from Him (for example, Is. 1:15; Amon 5:21-24).
In a “cool to care” generation where justice seeking is popular, we would do well to remind ourselves that it is not just a fad or justifiable moral indignation; it is an enduring spiritual discipline. Justice seeking transforms our hearts to resemble God’s heart. The disciplines are a means to “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7),” and the Bible is clear that seeking justice is a demonstration of God-likeness, exhibiting his character and work of “right making.” The habitual practice of overcoming our own inertia, our own limitations and business, and focusing on the concerns of God, causes us to develop eyes, ears, hands and hearts that look more like Christ’s. We grow a bit more on the “form” because justice seeking is regularly tethering us to that form.
When we see justice seeking as a spiritual discipline rather than a “ministry”, it subtly changes our expectations. We do justice seeking not because that is the best God can do for the world (though, of course, He does use it for the good of the world). We do it because it forms and re-creates us into beings who are more compatible with our God, and who develop a desire to live in a reality that is dominated by His ways. That desire will be fulfilled in heaven. But in the meantime, we do well to fall in love with all that the new creation will be – a community of justice and peace. As important as outcomes are, especially in freeing those who suffer terribly, we realize that justice seeking is ultimately NOT about outcomes for victims; it is about inward transformation of the seekers. Perhaps this is why Christ insists on using His people for the work. And as a spiritual discipline, justice seeking is a lifetime exercise, not a weekend experience. You would think me a very poor Christian if I said “Oh, hey, next weekend I am going to pray – isn’t that cool?!” because you would be thinking “Doesn’t she pray every day, even multiple times throughout the day?” And yet I cannot tell you how many times justice seeking is an annual excursion rather than a habitual way of living and loving, of earning and spending. The disciplines require ongoing attention and regular practice if they are really going to tether us to Christ’s likeness. I don’t suppose my bamboo engineer just tethered the bamboo for a day or two each month, and expected the baby stalk to end up curly.
Clearly as a spiritual discipline, justice seeking requires…DISCIPLINE. Often justice seekers lack discipline. We are drawn to and motivated by the hype, the drama, and sensationalism, but we aren’t quite as convinced that daily study and, heaven forbid, drudgery, be part of the work. Often justice seekers haven’t studied, equipped, practiced, or given their best excellence. We want to show up and be effective. But undisciplined efforts simply will not make a dent against the disciplined expertise of abusers and exploiters, who go to great lengths to develop their skills of abuse and terror.
Categorizing justice seeking as a spiritual discipline also provides a corrective to a bad habit that justice-seekers have – we often think we are RESPONSIBLE for bringing about justice. But God has taken responsibility for that enormous task. Justice seeking as a spiritual discipline rightly puts the responsibility for “getting the job done” right back on God, who has taken responsibility for justice making since that ignoble Fall; and it restores justice seeking to its rightful place, not as “responsible” but as “responsive” to God’s interests and movements.
Often I see justice enthusiasts (and I am one of them, to be sure) using the spiritual disciplines to get ready to do the work of justice, and that is a definite MUST, since it is a direct clash with the powers of darkness. But consider making “justice seeking” one of your intentional daily or weekly spiritual disciplines. How can I seek justice today and tether myself to the form of Christ so that I grow more like Him? We don’t want to be enthusiastic stalks of bamboo, growing like crazy, but not growing into a form. Justice needs more than our passion, it needs discipline.