Interesting word isn’t it? I even like the sound of it, noo-ahns! It means “a subtle difference or distinction in expression, meaning, response, etc. It could also mean a slight difference or variation in color or tone. I was introduced to the word many years ago in my Greek and Hebrew classes because it became quite crucial to pick up on the “nuances,” the subtle differences and tones of new words, new vocabulary, new and expanding contexts of Biblical writings, in order not to miss crucial and subtle distinctions.
For the last 25 plus years of serving the church I have hesitated to use “nuance” when trying to unpack a Biblical word or context. Folk hear it and it can leave an air of “snooty” hanging like a cloud. But in these recent days it is time to pull the word out, because it is crucial to pick up on the subtle differences and tones of what the aim of Christ’s teaching and living was and is. It’s also crucial to pick up on the subtle uses of words so often on our own lips, words that initially sound accurate but upon closer scrutiny defy the beliefs, truths, and what young Timothy heard written to him many years ago in regard to living a truly faithful life, there would be those who would “hold to the outward form of godliness but would deny its power.” (2 Timothy 3:5) The power that the gospel of grace could and would change and transform our lives, if we would dare believe it. John Wesley understood this to be the power of sanctifying grace, the twin sister of justifying grace.
When you pay close attention, or nuance, the teachings of Jesus and Paul they exhort people to “repent-turn around” from certain kinds of behavior and live differently. Jesus said that he came that we might have abundant life. Jesus says over and over again that he is the new “way” he is a new kind of “life or living.” Most of the struggles we have with life and living have to do with the choices we make and the behaviors we act out of which impact and too often sour our relationship with others leading to the kinds of troubles we live with. The Apostle Paul exhorts and encourages to live “in” Christ and allow Christ to live “in” us.
Because we are socially and interpersonally made to connect from birth on we live out our lives taking with us, all the “meaningful” relationships we have. In my life I have come to understand this to be living “in” and allowing others to live “in” me. When I leave for work in the morning I take with me, my wife Lois, I take my children, I take my mom and dad, I take those friendships that inform me about who I am and what I am to “be” in the world as I interact in the world. Those relationships “in” me inform, instruct, enlighten, and remind me who I am and to whom I belong and all my decisions are gridded through those relationships. These relationships have a real impact on everything I do and say. Living out of those relationships I attempt to honor and be responsible because I recognize how important I am to them and they are to me.
And then of course there is Jesus, my friend, my Lord, my God. It is in and through this matrix of relationship that I live in Christ and Christ lives in me and through the impact of the Holy Spirit I am continually in dialogue about how I would act in any given situation. When Paul says we are to “pray without ceasing” he is aware that there is an ongoing dialogue within, that considers and aligns my life with not only Christ but all those alignments that keep me “set apart” uniquely for a meaningful and purposeful life. When I disregard the “realities of these relationships” I am most in danger of becoming only “self-ish” and run the greatest risk of “missing the mark,” the nuanced understanding of sin.
In other words I am now under the “influence” of these relationships throughout my life. Notice I did not say “control.” God does not control me, my wife does not control me, my friends do not control me, I “submit” my life to each one’s influence and act and behave accordingly. I call it a “nuanced” life in the Spirit. It’s powerful and it determines whether I will act in bad/unholy ways or good/holy ways. It is the stuff, or using an image Jesus used, it is the soil and vine system I am a part of and connected to. Jesus said it this way, “A good tree bears good fruit and a bad bears bad fruit, you will know them by their fruits.” Jesus loves to use “organic” living images unlike those who like to pound legislation and law at others.
Jesus understands we live “in” the “soil” of our choosing. And that soil, those relationships, are the nutrients out of which our lives flow and bear good or bad fruit. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Church at Ephesus said it this way, that we might not be “alienated from the life of God,” and that we should not “lose all sensitivity and abandon ourselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ!” – Ephesians 4:18-20. I think there is something to be said about the nuanced life, a life where we are sensitive to what we are producing as our life flows outward in the world.
Paul and Jesus concur. When we put our “faith and trust” in God’s power, seen and lived out in the life of Jesus, we need to stop doing and excusing bad behavior/fruit. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t read or hear a so called Christ follower announce to someone else that “none of us is perfect,” or “I’m only human.” Let’s nuance the Biblical word “perfect.” The greek word for perfect in the New Testament is “telios.” It means growing and maturing. The use of “perfect” in the Bible must be defined and “nuanced” by the greek usage of the term and not some glossy, warped, and doctored image from the cover of some airport magazine rack. I continue to hear Christ followers excuse bad behavior and worse by suggesting that they are not “perfect, no one is.” I have never read anything in the new testament that either Jesus said or Paul said such a thing.
The other term thrown out to excuse bad behavior is, “we’re only human.” Remember this, we were only intended to ever be humans. God said when he created human beings that they were not just good but very good. Our humanity is not the problem, it is our willful choice to behave and act in ways that are not in alignment with God’s purposes for us and for each other and for creation. With those two comments, “no one is perfect” and “we’re only human” all the exhortations and invitations of Jesus and Paul to a new and abundant kind of life are nullified. The very “power of godliness” is actually denied. Oh, here’s another one, “Pastor I’m trying, I’m trying.” Now I know life is hard. But don’t we who have been introduced to the One who said he was the Way and the Life, don’t we talk ourselves out of that more often than not? You cannot find those words, “just try,” (isn’t that a form of works righteousness?) on the mouth of Jesus or Paul. I am convinced that those three phrases have wrecked more lives than can be counted.
If Jesus and Paul extend to us a “power” that frees us and forgives us from a past of making choices that leave us broken and others broken in our wake, leave us hungry for another kind of life, abundant life, will we not embrace and submit our lives to the same Jesus who said he would send the “power to be his witnesses” not just in word but deed? That power most demonstrated in a life of humble service and love?
As a father who has raised three adult children, I continue to ask this question, “are my children maturing/telios/perfect?” Are they “growing up?” Are they living out of a real and powerful relationship with their parents, their friends, their colleagues, their Lord?” I am looking for certain attributes as they grow up. Some of you are still raising young one’s. It’s important not to expect from your 5 year old what you might anticipate from a 25 year old. Its also important not to send any messages to your 25 year old that it might be OK to live as if they are only 5 years old. Understanding those differences is to understand maturity. We anticipate certain things from folks at certain times in their lives. We don’t “hold” things against one another when we realize they are growing into maturity. I wonder, though, if we keep people immature in their faith because we don’t challenge them to grow up in their faith, and even when we continue to send messages that aren’t even half truths? As we live in and out of all of our relationships we need be sensitive to this “maturing” process as we live with each other and Christ.
Paul wrote to the Church of Corinth “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:18) Life in Christ is permeated with the new and that includes you. Earlier in that same letter he says this, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:17-18) Have you lived out that freedom? Are you being changed, not from bad to good, but from good to better, and better to best? That’s Paul’s words. Or are you just making excuses?
As a pastor I look across my congregation and ask the same questions. Are they making excuses or are they maturing in their faith? I know the subtle differences. Nuance your life today, be honest, be sensitive, you know the subtle differences between making excuses and maturing in faith, hope, and love. You do and so do I.