Jurgen Moltmann’s new book is on Christian ethics, and its title is A New Life-style. The title may prove to be a popular slogan. It has been in the air. The Lausanne Covenant spoke of “our duty to develop a simple life-style in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.”

The phrase seems to have originated in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1968, when the Fourth Plenary Assembly of the World Council of Churches set its Section VI to seek “a new life-style.” Explaining the enterprise, Birgit Rodhe then suggested that the term should be taken to denote not merely outward appearance, fashion, or behavior but (as in literature and art) the outer, visible form of some inner content or substance. She felt that Christian life-styles of the past were of little meaning for the present. As examples of “lifestyles,” the final Section VI report (bewildering, as such documents often are, in its pasting together of heterogeneous materials) mentions on one side the “struggle for social justice,” on the other “the refusal to smoke, to drink alcohol, to dance, to use make-up and to gamble, and the eagerness to attend church regularly.”

I’m not going to discuss this confrontation. I shall also refrain from commenting on the second list with its merry indiscrimination, though it has the qualities that tempt my irascibility. Rather, the thing I want to point out is that we may not be altogether well advised to describe Christian life and action as a “life-style.”

The term suggests some characteristics that do not fit with the Christian ethic.

A “style” is the unity of the distinctive forms of expression of a person, an epoch, or a piece of art. It points to some individual manner of action, a manner that remains the same. So its meaning comes close to habit, custom, fashion. It signifies continuity in a way of doing things. It lacks the idea of change—a lifestyle is static.

Uppsala stressed the diversity of lifestyles of Christians in different circumstances: one an illiterate hunter in New Guinea, another a mathematician in the Soviet Union, and another a landlord in Paraguay. But the very term intimates that each of these persons will go on living the same way tomorrow as he is living today. The term “life-style” fails to include the important element of the changing situation and, above that, God’s presence and guidance in it.

A life-style certainly is the expression of some inner content, but the term cannot conceal its origin in the old ideal of life as the public presentation of a person’s selfhood. I sense a strong flavor of human autonomy in the current concept of life-style, and very little to indicate that there are basic God-given moral standards to begin with.

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To sum up, depicting Christian ethics as a “life-style” blurs both fundamental concepts of biblical ethics: God’s unchanging commandments, and his presence and guidance in the individual situation.

As we look to Christ himself we discover the true essentials of Christian action. Whoever reads without prejudice the records of his teaching and living will agree that Christ submitted to the Ten Commandments, though not to their interpretation by the scribes. He accepted the commandments as rules for the believer. In addition to this basic commitment, there is indeed an element of “lifestyle” in Christ’s conduct; for example, he attended the synagogue regularly on the sabbath day (“as was his custom,” Luke 4:16). But that was nothing new. What really strikes us is his thorough renunciation of self-will, his sense of listening to the Living God, and his consciousness of mission. We find all these aspects in a saying of key significance, John 5:30: “Of myself I can do nothing. As I hear, so I decide.… For I do not seek my own will but the will of the Father who has sent me.” Let us consider these words.

Nothing of myself.” Christ’s commitment to the Kingdom of God is so overriding and clear that nothing else finds place in his life. When he says, “Of myself I can do nothing,” does it mean he was a weak person? That is not what the money-changers thought when he threw them out of the Temple. It means that it is no longer one man’s will being done, which leads to division, but God’s will. About this Jesus is so determined that he says: “Of myself I can do nothing.” He abandoned his own will—not because he wanted to do less than the humanly possible, but because he wanted to do more. And this perspective he taught his disciples, too, in the Lord’s prayer.

Not only does he not choose his own plans; he does not choose the means for carrying them out, either: “The Father who has sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it” (John 12:49, NIV). We may indeed have understood in part our commission from God, in contrast to our private plans. But we all too often still decide ourselves what we think best for its fulfillment. Once we are free from the illusions about our own power and insight, then and only then can we begin to seek from God the greater wisdom and strength we need for the larger tasks set by him. It is a matter of placing oneself at God’s disposal, a readiness to accept his orders, in short, to act out of receiving.

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“As I hear, so I decide.” Such living begins with listening. Quiet times become necessary. Jesus lived according to the prophet’s saying, “The Lord awakens me every morning. He awakens my ear that I may hear as a learner” (Isa. 50:4). Perhaps listening is the clue to Christ’s long nights of prayer, e.g., the night before he elected the twelve disciples. As he heard, so he chose—including Judas, who betrayed him! He did not know God’s will in every detail right from the start. He needed to listen.

How much more this must be true of us! As the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar points out, “Who would speak to the world must first listen to God.” Let us learn from Kierkegaard’s experience: “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening.”

Jesus listened to God before he acted. Theologians have sometimes played the game of reducing the characteristics of a confession to a single formula: Roman Catholics and Calvinists both represented Martha’s activism whereas the Lutheran church resembled Mary, who sat at Christ’s feet listening. Christ himself demonstrates that both attitudes are to be alive in the Christian. He embraces listening and action.

A sense of mission. For Christ, the knowledge that he was entrusted with a definite task and commission was the source and reason for his abandonment of self-will. Also for us, a sense of mission is vital for motivating our work and helping us to withstand the burdens of the day. Under the discerning leadership of our Lord each moment, we are to live so that his will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This is our life’s purpose and horizon, and it is more than a lifestyle.

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