Last Friday night we watched Jet Li's Fearless, supposedly his final Chinese martial arts film. It's based on the true story of the legendary Chinese hero Huo Yuanjia, founder and spiritual guru of the Jin Wu Sports Federation. Watching Jet Li move is always fascinating, but the story, I thought, was a bit... heavy-handed, I guess. Nothing subtle about its themes or the moral it wanted to convey, but it did put me in mind of things I'd been learning in Bible class last week, and provided a good visual for the power of human good.
The concept of our sin nature has always been taught to me under the title "sin nature," perhaps to delineate it from the "flesh," which can refer to either the physical body alone or the nature within it that is set against God. In some ways, though, I think it's a misnomer, because sinning is not all the sin nature does. It can also produce good.
We know this because Isaiah 64:6 mentions our human good or righteous deeds as not only existing, but being utterly repulsive to God. It's difficult for us to imagine feeding the poor, being kind and compassionate to orphans (or anyone), giving generously to those in need, living a moral and outwardly sinless life, even throwing all one's emotions into "worshipping" God, as being repulsive, but that's what the verse says. All our righteous deeds are as filthy rags, or in a more direct translation of the Hebrew, stinky, gross menstrual rags. In other words, God is "grossed out" by our human good.
Revelation 20:12 says that all unbelievers will be judged not for their sins, but for their good works, their ergon, which will be set up against the perfect righteousness of God and found lacking.
2 Corinthians 5:10 tells us that all Christians' works will be evaluated at the judgment seat of Christ as to whether they are good or worthless. Will they turn out to be the highly combustible wood, haw and straw of I Corinthians 3:12-14 , or the gold, silver and precious stones? Fire will test the quality of each man's work -- quality determined by the power we used in performing them, either that of the Spirit and the word, or of our flesh. Works done in the flesh will be burned up, whereas works done in the power of the Spirit will be rewarded.
How can we know if we are performing human good or divine good? An excellent question. One not always easy to answer. I suspect there are many who are happily trucking along, believing they are doing great things for God when it's only human good. Because human good feels good and right. It is stimulating to operate in the strengths of the flesh, and to know that you have helped others out, or to believe that God is pleased with you.
Take self-discipline. It's a virtue that people admire. Supposed holy men of old renounced all their titles and possessions to take vows of poverty, depriving themselves of worldly pleasure and comfort in the quest to be "holy." People admired that because most would never do such things. The holy men could well have felt very good about themselves, about their great devotion, their commitment to God, their self-deprivation, the way they were so different from most people. They could also have enjoyed, perhaps somewhere deep in their hearts, the fact that others regarded them as holy and committed and spiritual, and they would have felt good and right about having fulfilled what they believed to be the standards for what is a holy and dedicated lifestyle.
But these are not things God requires of us. Self-discipline is part of the fruit of the Spirit, something God creates in us, not something we work at creating in ourselves. Though it is very definitely something many do work at improving -- Christians and non-Christians, both.
In fact, there are some who acted in a very similar way to these so called holy Christian monks: Gautama Buddha also gave up everything. At the age of 29 he renounced all his possessions, his titles and his family and went off in search of enlightenment. At one point he was only allowing himself to eat a nut or a leaf a day, and so collapsed from malnutrition. Eventually he adopted a more "balanced" form of self-denial and became "enlightened." Everyone regarded him as a holy man. As spiritual. He wasn't even a Christian.
It was all created solely by the strengths of his flesh.
Which brings me back to Fearless. Because the whole core of the "wushu" or fighting discipline that Jet Li's character pursued was seated in human good. The purpose is to make its practitioners better people. To discipline their minds, bodies and spirits. To bring them inner peace. To give them abilities which they should use to help others. It is a discipline, perhaps even a whole culture, based on the strengths of the flesh.
Which makes it very obvious that we have such strengths. And that they are perhaps an even greater temptation and distraction from the true Christian way of life than sin...