Gandhi and Our pursuit of God's goodness
by Patrick Lafferty
The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
If you’re a Christian on the campus of a secular university, inevitably you will hear some detractor of the faith use Gandhi as an example of why the classical conception of Christianity might seem unjust. Mahatma, India’s “Great Soul,” demonstrated singular devotion to, among other causes, pacifying Hindu-Muslim strife through the nearly unqualified application of non-violence in both word and political strategy. Even when his movement was met with murderous opposition, Gandhi remained steadfastly committed to restraint, believing it to be the only sufficient means to end strife.
For that commitment, Gandhi has been ennobled throughout the world as an example of true goodness. And that goodness derived from, at most, a respect for Jesus, but not faith in Jesus. How then, in light of his exemplary life, could Gandhi be excluded from the eternal blessings of God? So ask those who find fault with the notion that God’s favor falls on only those whose faith falls on Christ in this life. (Rob Bell is only the most recent purveyor of that line of questioning.)
Now a recent biography by Joseph Lelyveld removes some of the luster from previous characterizations of the diminutive revolutionary. None of what Lelyveld shares is new revelation; everything has been on public record for decades. Nevertheless his work has elicited a firestorm of controversy, leading some to call for an outright ban of the book.
Mine is not to debate the accuracy of Lelyveld’s rendition of Gandhi’s life so much as to consider one element of Gandhi’s pursuit of virtue, which at least one review of Lelyveld’s biography provides a glimpse of. Specifically I want to ask how Gandhi’s pursuit compares with what it means to walk by the “fruit of the Spirit.”
Gandhi saw his political commitments as an expression of his spiritual convictions. He saw the notion of non-violence as having a metaphysical, not merely philosophical or sociological, origin. (In fact, he believed Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to be almost the pinnacle of discourses on the subject of peace). But it would seem that Gandhi’s pursuit of virtue—including the discipline of restraining the impulses toward violence—was mostly a matter of focusing his attention on the virtue itself and then attempting to master it by force of will. From the accounts of his pursuit of other virtues, placing himself in situations that would test his self-control appears to be his primary mode of moral improvement.
But Gandhi’s approach to virtue begs this question: can you hope to manifest the virtues of God’s character just on the basis of your respect for those virtues in themselves? Is it enough to meditate on perfection in order to become perfect? The cross of Jesus says you can hope and meditate, but you will fail without something more than instruction in virtue. Why the blood of Jesus if we only needed instruction?
Mark preached to us last Sunday the importance of gazing on the greatness of God—which may sound an awful lot like what Gandhi did in letting his attention to perfections be what drew him toward those perfections. And yet, to gaze at the greatness of God as the Psalmist directs is to gaze in part at the perfection of His mercy. Psalm 145 exalts the perfections of God, but also heralds His works, many of which reflect His mercy extended to Israel when she demonstrated something far less than His perfect holiness. The hope of Israel’s holiness lay not merely in her meditation on the perfections of God but also on the steadfastness of His love, often expressed in mercy toward her stubbornness.
Likewise, Jesus said unequivocally you must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect. But He also stretched out His arms to die for those in whom perfection would be impossible were it not for His perfect life and death. That Jesus had to and was glad to die for us signifies not just our need of His sacrifice to reconcile us to God. It also reveals our need of His merciful love as what compels our aspiration to His perfection.
Consider a familiar literary example. Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean was not ignorant of kindness before his nineteen years in prison. But Valjean felt no burning compulsion to be kind until a gracious bishop by the name of Bienvenu extended mercy to the former convict in a dire moment and invoked these words: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” That is precisely what the Lord Jesus says to us from Calvary and embracing His words with the help of His Spirit is our only hope of walking by the fruit of His Spirit.
Unless you see the fruit of the Spirit as more than just perfections in God—until you see their coming to fruition as a response to His love for you in Christ—your commitment to mastering virtue will achieve at best a distorted version thereof. Lelyveld’s distillation of Gandhi’s life provides at least some evidence for that argument; and you know what, so does my life. That is why I look not only to God’s perfections, but His mercy as my hope of ever growing in His holiness.
Have you presumed upon His mercy as an excuse for carelessness, or have you forgotten His mercy as you’ve sought to be perfect as He is perfect (Mt 5:48)?
The fruit of our meditation on both (Ps 145:3) will be a potent testimony to the all-sufficiency of Jesus—be it on a college campus or wherever you find yourself.