Simple; not Easy…
For the past several months, I have been “meditating” (opposed to quickly reading) my way through several books. I don’t approach all books in the same way. Some books I breeze through, others I read more intentionally, and some I spend months chewing on them. Occasionally, two or more books will align in a delightful way such that they complement one another far beyond mere chance or coincidence. Presently, Deep-Rooted in Christ by Joshua Choonmin Kang, The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson, Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ancient Christian Devotional: A Year of Weekly Readings edited by Thomas Oden, and my Bible are working together in concert to sing a most divine song to my heart.
What is at the core of my post title, Simple; not Easy…? As the list of books above implies, a number of things are at the core…but when these are distilled down to the most common denominator and all the questions are asked and answered, what is left standing is one response; “simple.” What is simple? The answer is simple; the answer to every question and every challenge of life… and that answer is to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength…then, love your neighbor as yourself. I’m sure there are detractors that say that is not the answer at all, and if it were the answer, it certainly is not simple, but I disagree. It is simple; we choose to put God first and then exercise with deliberate actions and intent to make it so in every facet of life. On the other hand, and as my title infers, it is not easy; not by a long shot.
Reading from The Contemplative Pastor Eugene Peterson writes; “Gabriel Marcel wrote that life is not so much a problem to be solved as a mystery to be explored. That is certainly the biblical stance: life is not something we manage to hammer together and keep in repair by our wits; it is an unfathomable gift. We are immersed in mysteries: incredible love, confounding evil, the creation, the cross, grace, God.” How true; life is a mystery…one we are all trying to figure out. The problem is that we are not equipped to figure it out on our own. There are simply way too many variables and complexities that make the equation unfathomable for us. Not the least of which, in this equation, is the deceptive heart; “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Here God tells us that without Him, we are not able to even know ourselves. How then, can we hope to make it through life? It seems to me that without putting God first (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Mark 12:28-31), our existence is only as sure as the next roll of the dice…not a very comforting thought.
I often listen to men and women express their discontent, confusion, and uncertainty about life; this isn’t new, unexpected, or abnormal. What perplexes me about this phenomenon of confusion and uncertainty is the amount of pastors, clergy, and spiritual leaders who are bound by it. I meet regularly with men who share a similar calling as I; we help to guide people in the ways of Jesus and faith. This is no easy task. As has already been mentioned, there are great complexities and challenges when human beings are involved…in anything. I am often perplexed and mildly disappointed when I meet with my peers. Many times I will meet with folks from different faith traditions and often I will meet with gentlemen of my own tribe; in either gathering I will frequently hear confessions and professions of faith that seem weak if not entirely contrary to the teachings of Jesus. My words should not be misunderstood; my intent is not criticism, or to judge someone’s faith, but as it relates to the leading of people or teaching the Word of God…it is most assuredly a matter that causes me great concern. Therefore, I am trying to understand why there is disparity between our views, opinions, and methods of counsel. Sorry for dropping off task for a moment, but I like to clarify and qualify my words. Back to my original thought now…
Recently I heard several leaders express their fears about the state of America (political and policy changes), the economy of our nation, and leading people through these times of transition and change. I heard them express uncertainty about knowing God’s direction for them as leaders in His Church and His direction for them as shepherds of His local flock…their home church. At the risk of sounding trite, I don’t get it. I don’t get the fear, I don’t get the uncertainty, and I don’t get the confusion. I understand there are ebbs and flows of our faith, especially so with concession given to physical, emotional, and outside-of-our-control circumstances; however, I think these are exceptions to our “normal” walk with God as opposed to the “natural” order of our faith journey. Yes, life can be difficult and in some cases it can be exceedingly difficult to the level of horrific proportion. It is not easy. The solution; however, is simple. Believe Jesus; take Him at His Word. Put God first in everything that we do; as He has said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.” When we live with this as our primary directive, things change.
Problem: Things aren’t changing.
Why aren’t things changing? Why aren’t our church leaders, our spiritual guides, leading with confident trust in God? Why is it that so many of our professed teachers of Christian spirituality seem to have an uncertainty about God’s direction and will for His people? Once again, I think the will of God is pretty obvious (if we are open to the idea of reading the Bible). Jesus taught us what the will of the Father was during His time teaching the Twelve. Jesus shared repeatedly through His public teaching what the essence of God’s Kingdom was. He also told us to pray, teach, and live for the Kingdom of God at every single opportunity. We are to be Kingdom people. The command is simple; implementation and execution are not easy.
Why aren’t we living in compliance with the prayer and instruction of Jesus?
Generally speaking, I believe we have not become disciples. Oh, we profess to know Jesus and we claim to believe “in” him. We call ourselves followers and disciples, but we live frightfully similar lives in terms of those who openly reject Jesus and his teaching. We are easily offended by each other, we strive to purpose our personal agendas, we live immoderately and wasteful with regard to our personal resources, we are more concerned about individual comfort over the plight of the impoverished and marginalized citizens of earth, and we repeatedly rob God of the first fruits of His blessing to us (first fruits extends to every facet of our life: skills and gifting, time, talents, finances, etc.). I ask again, what is the reason for this offensive representation of Christianity? I believe the answer is; we have not become disciples. Jesus said, no one could be his disciple unless he was first willing to deny himself. He went on to clarify that statement to include “being willing to give up everything” to follow him (Luke 14:25-35). Jesus made a number of similar statements to these in other narrative accounts in the gospels; the point being, we must first be willing to die to self in order to become his disciple. This was the heart of his exposition to Nicodemus (John 3); “you must be born again.” One cannot be born again unless he first suffers some form of death whether it is literal or figurative… And again, on yet other occasions, Jesus spent considerable energy trying to explain the “first and last” concept along with the “lose your life to find your life” concept (see Matthew 10:32-39; 16:24-26; Luke 9:23-25). Could it be that our failure in becoming disciples is directly related to the fact we have not first “died to self?” I think this is the problem exactly and I think it is as prevalent among the Five-fold ministry (Eph. 4:11) as it is among those who are not. Yes, evidence indicates there is a large number of people professing to be teachers and leaders who have never become disciples. This is a tragedy. These “would be” teachers are in seriously dangerous territory (see Matthew 23 and James 3:1).
What is the answer; what is the takeaway?
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the takeaway is simple, but not easy. The “Sign of Christ” only comes to those who are first willing to deny (die to) self. The sign of Christ is the transformed heart… without it there is no real evidence of a Christ-filled life.
“The sign of Christ drives the destroyer away from us insofar as our heart receives the Savior.” Augustine
In Deep-Rooted in Christ, Joshua Choonmin Kang reminds his readers of Jesus’ words from John’s Gospel… Jesus portrays his life with rich comparison to seed and fruit (John 12:24-25). “A seed that falls to the ground but doesn’t die won’t produce new life. Only when that seed is broken will the new life begin.” Pastor Kang also asks; “How can we let the life of God flow free? As the Lord said, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’ (Luke 9:23).” Paul also discovered that the power of God flowed without limits when his self was broken. “I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you—a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:31).
“If we say ‘I believe in Jesus’ but it doesn’t affect the way we live, the answer is not that now we need to add hard work to our faith so much as that we haven’t truly understood or believed in Jesus at all.” Timothy Keller
I would add to Dr. Keller’s thought; we have not started down the path of discipleship…I am not following Jesus. My belief only trickles down from my brain to my lips. My belief has not consumed me to the point that it has affected the death of my Adamic nature and put to rest the cold, stony heart of this self-made-man…allowing the reconciling resurrection and restoration of the God-heart (Ezekiel 11:19 and Ezekiel 36:26) evidencing the transformational work of the Holy Spirit. This is the true sign of a disciple and how it begins to affect the way we live.
Simple; not easy.
The result of disciple-flavored leadership is confidence in the face of adversity, joy even in seasons of grief, gentle calmness of soul even when chaos surrounds, discernment, knowledge, and wisdom…yes, the very mind of Christ in a world that reeks of uncertainty. He has given us everything we need to live a godly life; even to sharing in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:2-4). How do we do this; what is our part? Our part is to trust, obey, die to self and follow. It isn’t easy, but it is simple.