A Matter of Spiritual Perception: Rethinking Opportunity

What do we mean by an “opportunity” to do or to be something? Our use of the word suggests something partaking of both the providential and ethical. How are these facets related?

Reviewing the Bible’s use of opportunity language, it seems a sound grasp of the notion enriches our understanding of what belongs to spiritual perception. Spiritual perception, or the “mind of Christ” (Phil. 2), is an orientation to life rooted in a biblically realistic view of the situatedness of love for God and neighbor, the covenantal substance of Christian ethics. Opportunity is a surprisingly significant biblical idea, yet one will not find many, if any, articles on “opportunity” in the theological dictionaries. This is unfortunate since the idea is often confused with happenstance or chance, terms which belong to the range of English usage but which are large steps away from the role the idea plays in the Bible.

We can begin our quest for understanding with a simple observation: opportunity appears to be an overlapping middle element, a point of intersection, of (a) God’s exhaustive ordering of history for a people called to love him and their neighbor with (b) the multitude of specific contexts, personal and relational, that make up the sphere of our ethical activity. Far from mere chances, this means opportunities are both divinely provided and humanly seized, and they are seized (or overlooked) in decisively ethical terms. To take this a step further, the seizing of opportunities is a characteristic, regular instance of spiritual perception, something of which only a person possessed or imbued with the Spirit is capable. In fact, spiritual perception in the specificity and grittiness of the many concrete contexts of our relational lives is what possession of the Spirit looks like. In the uniqueness and specificity one’s many relationships to other human beings, the Christian perceives the materia, the substantive content, of his own call to love his neighbor. He is this kind of friend to this person, this kind of friend to another; a mentor to this one, a student of that one; a source of encouragement here, a benefactor of another’s encouragement there. These relationships change and develop, of course, and sometimes they’re reversed, but in each case they point to our involvement in another’s world and story – and it is the nature of that involvement, that role that one has in another’s narrative, that helps fill out the particular content of the duty to love one’s neighbor. In After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Alasdair MacIntyre put it this way: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” (p. 216).

Opportunity: Yahweh-Created, Spirit-Perceived

In Judges 14, a Timnite woman catches Samson’s eye. It is yet another twist in a book replete with surprises. Samson isn’t supposed to want a Philistine woman: the Philistines are an enemy of God and Israel. On the face of it Samson’s interest is at least imprudent. The narrator, though, in one of his many editorial asides, pulls back the curtain to reveal the activity of God behind the scenes: “His father and mother did not know that it was from the LORD, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines. At that time the Philistines ruled over Israel” (v. 4). God sought a to’ana, an opportunity.

What’s going on here? In the immediately preceding verses, we learn the Spirit has just now started to “stir” in Samson (13:25). Matthew Henry speculates that it was because of the Spirit’s stirring that Samson perceives the opportunity before him: the woman poses no danger of Philistine idolatry but she does present an opportunity for military subversion. Perhaps Henry is reading Samson too positively here; I, for one, am inclined to think Samson’s motives – as the narrator leads us to characterize them – are not nearly so pure. But while Samson is momentarily an enigma, there is no question about God’s motives. Yahweh is seizing an opportunity he has himself created in his providential ordering of the events of history, including especially Samson’s own story as part of that history. And there is no question Yahweh’s stirring Spirit is connecting divinely purposed opportunity with human perception of it.

Not only does this involve us in the fascinating interplay of God’s direction of history with the reality of personal, moral action in that history (“secondary causes”), it also points us to one of many OT instances where “opportunity” is a matter of spiritual warfare. When God waged war on his enemies with the sword, it was a matter of creating and taking opportunity against them. Seized opportunity belonged to the typological victory of God over his and our enemies. As he wages that war now with the weapons of the Spirit, opportunity has no less a role on the battlefield. Meeting the scheming (opportunity-seizing) enemy involves putting on God’s own armor, including the sword of his discerning, stirring Spirit (Eph. 6:11, 17).

Opportunity, the Image of God, and the Sphere of Ethical Activity

The very notion of opportunity, as an ethical matter, militates against any suggestion of man as robot. If Deut. 17-25 teaches us anything, it makes clear that the bilateral facet of our covenant relation with God involves the kind of truly personal decision-making that requires spiritual perception. The sphere of our ethical activity is God’s multi-faceted creation, the materiality of our own bodies and the bodies of others, the concrete contexts of our personal relations. Not “family” in general but the spouse and children and relatives we have; not “work” generally but the particular place of our own employment; relationships with our own congregation, our own pastor, our own illnesses and wrestling with the illnesses of our own loved ones: this is the “stuff” of loving or not loving one’s neighbor. The biblical weightiness of our ethical action or inaction under these concrete and specific conditions points to the relationship between a proper conception of human freedom and the necessity of spiritual perception: because we are not robots (we act as moral, divine image-bearing creatures) we need a spiritual suppleness in life that perceives opportunities to love the neighbor.

Opportunity, a Spiritual Skill

We can make another observation at this point. The place of opportunity in the ethical world of the Bible is a powerful critique of our sinful demand that our obligations be simple. Some want a list, a clear and objectively recognizable set of this-and-that against which one can always measure oneself. The problem, however, is not with the notion of a list (God did give a rather important list we call the Decalogue) but with its misuse. The this-and-that of God’s itemized commands are not abstracted principles but ordinarily signals to a way of life and thought that overflows the scope of the itemized imperative onto many other things. God’s commands are, and imply, a world of their own, and his commands cannot be understood properly, still less obeyed properly, should we ignore the ethical world to which they belong. This applies no less to the “easy” commands against theft than to the more ones such as the commands for ritual purity and Canaanite extermination.

Thinking about Deuteronomy (as comprehensive text of covenant renewal) in relation to the Decalogue (as list) is helpful here: the Decalogue-list is repeated in Deut. 5, and then most of Deut. 17-25 is given over to explicating those commandments through many specific, sometimes extraordinary, case studies. “This is what obedience looks like,” those chapters say, in effect. Francis Watson has referred to biblical ethics in the NT as a matter of “thinking with” the OT, and he’s exactly right. Opportunity as a NT idea says as much. By ruling out bare obedience to a particular imperative as belonging to true faithfulness, the very notion of seizing an “opportunity” makes active spiritual perception or discernment essential to the life of true faith and obedience. So “Tell me what I should do and I’ll apply it across the board,” is wrong not only because it’s an oversimplification of ethics but also because it reverses doing and being: in the new creation imbued with the Spirit, we do (act on opportunities to love and serve our neighbor) because of who we are (a people given Spirit-perception). As such a people, we have the spiritual capacity, the skill, to discern the gift of divinely-ordered opportunities for what they are.

Opportunity and the Liberty of Spirit

The words of Gal. 5:13 rush us to the heart of the matter of opportunity: “you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Thinking biblically, opportunity is not only something to be perceived but something seized. Opportunity is an epiphanic aha! moment with two sides, light (love) and dark (flesh), and Paul says to seize it. Acting on the ethic of love for neighbor, we learn, takes place in the context of seized opportunities. In addition, opportunities are to be taken in the context of the exercise of Christian liberty.

This role of liberty as the context for seized opportunities is easily overlooked. In the next chapter, Paul picks up the notion again: “So then, as we have opportunity (kairos), let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (6:10). We learn that the liberty of the new covenant is not to be confused with the absence of real obligation. And of course it could not be: this would empty our covenant relationship with God of an indispensable element, its bilateral quality.

Instead, the blessing of the Spirit of Christ, the Benefactor of the grace of spiritual perception, transforms the terrain of obligation from something slavish under the Law to something marked by true liberty, liberty which should be defined not by laxity but by possibility. Under the old order, given the realities of sin as blindness, the lack of the Spirit meant the lack of spiritual perception. Hence the Law, as Guardian and schoolmaster, led the covenant child, Israel, with a range of explicit mandates for acting on love for God and neighbor. Israel was thus taught what the Shema and great command entailed at the level of lived faith. But the presence of the Spirit of promise means the Christian now has the sacred “equipment” needed to see opportunities for what they are and to act on them, to discern the opportune time (kairos). In the new covenant in Christ, then, we learn it is no less an obligation to give than it was under the old, but the duty to give is now in keeping with the new stage of spiritual maturity we have in Christ. It is no longer a matter of particular, detailed directives designed to instruct in the first principles of loving sacrifice, but now in the form of commended perception: the Christian recognizes the need, sees the opportunity to give, and so gives freely, “not under compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7). That qualifier is in striking contrast to life under the old order. God loves the cheerful, and we might add, perceptive, giver. That giver gives in the liberality created by the Spirit. He gives at the opportune time because he perceives it by the Spirit.

Opportunity: The Dark Side

In one of the most familiar NT passages on human struggle with sin and death, sin is personified and said to seize opportunities to stretch its unholy muscles. Twice in Rom. 7, Paul speaks of suffering the effective wiles of opportunity-seizing Sin. “Sin,” he writes, “seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness” (v. 8). Personified Sin saw the opportunity in the very commandments of God which point the way to love of God and neighbor. In fact, Sin needs the context that God’s commands afford: “Apart from the law, sin lies dead.” But Sin, explains Paul again, “seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (v. 11).

Interestingly, opportunity seized has a place in some of the more infamous faces that Sin has worn. Fresh from an offer of thirty pieces of silver, Judas Iscariot “sought an opportunity” (eukairos) to betray Jesus (Matt. 26:16; Mk 14:11; Lk 22:6). The evil Herodius found that “an opportunity came” with Herod’s birthday party (Mk 6:21) to rid herself of John the Baptist, so she took it, and off went the head of God’s servant.

Opportunity, we discover to our horror, is not only a gift from God to pave the way of thoughtful love. It has a dark side, too: “Give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph. 4:27), presumably because he takes what he can get. Even if we are oblivious, Sin remains perceptive, discerning, calculating. Sin sees opportunities to kill and takes them. In Rom. 7:8, Sin sees its opportunity and produces; in v. 11, Sin sees its opportunity and deceives. John Owen once wrote that behind every sin, no matter how apparently trivial, is an unholy longing of the Enemy to swallow us whole, to destroy us. But it rarely seems so. Sin is craftier than that. And its craftiness is in its unholy but real perception; it recognizes opportunities.

And yet, remarkably, the Christian’s warfare against Sin’s scheming involves a triumphant reversal, a throwing back of such opportunities as Sin seizes against Sin. In Luke 21, Jesus instructs his disciples poignantly in the great suffering to come. “They will lay their hands upon you and persecute you,” he says, “delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake” (v. 12). But he adds immediately: “This will be your opportunity to bear witness” (v. 13). The Christian overcomes the Enemy by stealing back the opportunity.