Posts Tagged ‘Christian’
Promises – Promises
I’ve had Psalm 119:50 pinned with a post-it note to the screen of my laptop computer for a couple of weeks now. I haven’t wanted to take it down as I continue to receive “comfort” and fresh insight from it.
“This is my comfort in my distress, that your promise gives me life.” Psalm 119:50 NRSV
What are the promises that give me comfort? Well, there are many, to be sure, but in particular, there are two specific promises that have become my anchor. There is one promise that I call the promise of eternity past and another I refer to as the promise of eternity future; eternal promises that give me life today…on this side of eternity, while we wait.
The First Promise
The first promise or what I refer to as a promise is the world as God originally created it. This is the world of Eden as depicted in the early chapters of Genesis (Genesis 1:26-31). This is the world before sin entered. Regardless of whether you accept these passages as literal or metaphorical, the intent of the story is clear; this is a world and humanity that is created in the image of God and in its present state is perfect and able to share complete fellowship with its Creator. I suppose the “state of something” is not technically a promise, but it occurs to me that to know this was God’s intent for His creation is to also accept this as a plan or destiny for all His people, “Be fruitful and multiply…fill the earth…” (Genesis 1:28). The first promise is God’s intention of peace, perfection, and eternal fellowship with the Holy “Us” (Genesis 1:26).
The Second Promise
Promise number two is found in Revelation 21:1-22:7. Again, this is more a state of being than it is a contractual promise. In this account, we are taught that the fulfillment of all things has taken place and a new heaven and new earth have been ordered. “The home of God is now among His people; death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). This is something the Lord promises will happen; He says, “These words are trustworthy and true…” (Rev. 22:6).
“This is my comfort in my distress, that your promise gives me life.”
If these “promises” are my comfort, what is my distress?
My distresses are often petty things like unmet expectations, self-imposed religious rules, and judgmental performance metrics for me and for others who “aren’t like me.” My distresses are sometimes significant and serious things like wondering how to pay a doctor bill when there’s no insurance, trying to figure a way to get a child home for the holidays from college when there’s no money in the bank, and the ever constant battles involved with “denying self” daily. Then there are the tragic distresses that rage daily, broken relationships, sickness, death…deceit, the oppression of people and children, poverty, famine, and war. It can be, and often is, so tiring and overwhelming.
We’re hopeful people though, we Christians. We wake up and try hard to do the right things with expectations that things will get better, but sometimes they don’t. We raise our children in the church with the hopes they will follow the way of Jesus on their own someday… some kids do, while others do not. We hope by “right living” and honoring God that it will go well with us; meaning, we will live prosperous, healthy, and meaningful lives—sometimes this is true for people and other times it is not.
We tell ourselves and try to believe that God is with us. Somewhere deep within, our soul we say, bears a witness that God is with us… “we know that we know that we know” or something like that. When we read or hear God’s Word, there is a resonance that it is True, but God is invisible…except for the tangible things He has provided (air, gravity, water…etc.). Faith is tough and can be the source of distress sometime. Jesus said it was better for Him to leave us, so the Holy Spirit would come to indwell each and every believer. I believe this is true. I believe God indwells me. I believe God directs me, guides me, comforts me, and “speaks” to me. But all of this can be a source of distress to me at times.
I have been created in the form of flesh. I have multiple senses; touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing… God created and God given. So many times though we speak of God in esoteric terms and we act as though Invisible God is the normal way for Christian believers to interact with God and speak of Him. We end up living our lives in some weirded-out metaphor. I think speaking honestly about our state of present being is better than trying to deceive ourselves into believing otherwise. I realize my words sound depressing, but really they are not.
My distresses are real, but so are my joys and so is my hope. My hope and my joy are found in the promises I mentioned earlier where the promise of eternity past and the promise of eternity future are reconciled and joined. In the middle of this time… between the bookends of these promises, I learn to live with an attitude of holy indifference knowing that God is present even if I do not see Him. God loves me even when I do not feel His hug. I learn to look for the presence of Christ in the smells, words, and actions of others; His Spirit, after all, animates them. I learn to accept the down payment of promise of eternity future in the things I can accept today. I live as a kingdom citizen today while I wait for the kingdom of tomorrow. When I grow weary I remember the way things were and the way things will be.
“This is my comfort in my distress, that your promise gives me life.”
Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus, Come.
[03MAR2012] Lent 2012: Day 11—Reflection and Meditation
♦ Readings – Exodus 20-24 ♦ 1 Corinthians 4:1-21
♦ Gospel - Mark 8:31-38
“Those who wish to be my disciples must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
I am not sure when it started, but I’ve had a recurring, almost constant, running thought in my head for awhile now. It has been going for a least a few weeks now—longer than two, but less than four. What I’m wondering is how many people (myself included) are truly honest about their faith. I don’t mean those people who might be closet Christians or even those people hiding secret sins; I mean something even more clandestine and subversive: doubt and outright disbelief in the tenets of our faith and the teaching/commandments of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Not many people will confess to these doubts and disbeliefs, but looking at our lives will tell the tale. The divisions of Christians into the various sects and denominations is one way of telling how far from the mark we are as a general group professing to follow Jesus. While having preferences for expression of worship that might differ from one generation and/or culture to another might be understandable, I think the rifts between most Christian groups go much further and deeper. We know for sure that these divisions are not what God intended for his followers, but no one wants to give an inch in their particular belief set, so the divisions remain regardless of what God desires for his people.
On a more personal and deeper level comes the self-examination of individual hearts. What do we really believe about the teachings that come to us from the Holy Scriptures? The Word of God comes to us from the opening pages of the Bible all the way through to the last pages. The temper and the tenets are unchanging…from the very beginning God tells us we are his special people and provides clear expectations; I read some of them today while studying in the Book of Exodus.
- You must be my holy people (Exodus 22:31)
- You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong (Exodus 23:2)
- Pay close attention to all my instructions (Exodus 23:13)
- You must serve only the Lord your God (Exodus 23:25)
How many people can honestly say they are living in accordance with this level of commitment to God? I think if most of us were truly honest, we would probably admit that we do not meet the standards that God has set for us. Many of us, if you believe the surveys, are ignorant of what the Bible teaches us having never read it in its entirety…much less spending time in the Scriptures to “know and pay close attention to all God’s instructions.”
I wonder what most Christian think when they hear the words of Jesus coming to us; “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me…” What do we think that means?
I think the Apostle Paul gives us what might be a fairly accurate representation of what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. In the apostle’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter four) he tells them a little about his Christian journey; he writes the following:
10 Our dedication to Christ makes us look like fools, but you claim to be so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are so powerful! You are honored, but we are ridiculed. 11 Even now we go hungry and thirsty, and we don’t have enough clothes to keep warm. We are often beaten and have no home. 12 We work wearily with our own hands to earn our living. We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us. 13 We appeal gently when evil things are said about us. Yet we are treated like the world’s garbage, like everybody’s trash—right up to the present moment.
14 I am not writing these things to shame you, but to warn you as my beloved children. 15 For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you.
16 So I urge you to imitate me. (1 Corinthians 4:10-16)
“We look like fools, we are ridiculed, we go hungry and thirsty, and we don’t have enough clothes to keep warm. We are often beaten and have no home…We are treated like the world’s garbage, like everybody’s trash. So, imitate me!“
If pressed, how many of us would stay the course if we were constantly treated in this manner? Paul lays out the perks for the Christian journey and says emphatically, “imitate me.” So many of us are gossipers, slanderers, back-biters, cheaters, selfish, and worse…especially if we judge ourselves by the standards Jesus lays out for us in his Sermon on the Mount. We tell ourselves we are better than we were or we are better than our heathen neighbors, but are we? Most Christians claim to have knowledge of the teachings of Christ, so why don’t we live as though we believe them? Do we secretly doubt that we have to? Do we secretly doubt the existence of God?
This season of Lent is a time to reckon with our disbelieving and disobedient hearts. We weep before our God with prayers of repentance. Those with contrite hearts, our God will not despise. Let us ask Him to strengthen our faith and provide clarity of vision to pursue the path of Christ. Our lives are not our own if we choose Christ—”Those who wish to be my disciples must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
O LORD, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, LORD. I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence! Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. (Ps. 139:1, 4, 7 23-24)
Merciful Father, in this acceptable time you invite us to return to you and call upon your name. In this, the season set apart, bestow upon us a contrite heart—that this our fast of forty days may be our profit and your praise. Amen.
Broken Humanity: The Tragedy of the False Self
When I left off at part one of Broken Humanity the other day, it was after describing a couple of scenarios of how our family of origin and life experiences shape our identities (plural intended) and how these experiences contribute to our proclivity to produce many false identities or false selves.
This insatiable appetite for identity is part of the tragedy of the human condition… at least in the sense that so many of us will search for our identity in the wrong places. Consider a couple of age old questions and adages; one question we hear over and over “what is the meaning of life” has been formed in so many ways and continues to be the consummate search for so many souls. Another question often formed with similar meaning is “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Funny thing about that question is that the more adults I converse with as I move through the years of my life, the more I hear people say, “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up…” How about the hit song from the musical group U2??? “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…” or how about the saying “looking for love in all the wrong places…” All of these sayings and questions exemplify the tragedy and longing in the hearts of men and women through the ages since the disobedience of the one man.
Making the Jump
Our brokenness runs so incredibly deep and is all but impossible to cure and heal. The reality is this: ONLY God through the redemptive-restorative work of Jesus Christ can cure and heal the brokenness. I realize some people will disagree with my assertion for the cure of our brokenness and that is okay; I’m not here to defend my position with regard to the cure. Each person is free to choose their own healing regimen and I sincerely wish each and every broken soul the best in their search…that they will find what they are looking for in the meaning of and for their life. Now, back to Christ as our cure…
There are many who concede that Christ is the cure for our brokenness; in fact, as I have shared, I am one of those believers and a strong proponent that God can and does completely heal our brokenness. So, my question is, why then do so many of these believers in Christ as the cure for our brokenness still suffer as broken and hurt people?
Challenges to the Cure
- The first challenge to the cure for our brokenness is awareness or understanding the problem of the multiple identities we have created for ourselves, these are the false selves. These false selves are pervasive and deeply rooted under layer after layer of masks and identities we have been handed by our family of origin, developed through life experiences, and identities we have created for ourselves. Because these are the only identities we have known, in many cases it is who we think we are, they are almost impossible to break away from and give up. This leads us to the next challenge.
- Denying self is the second greatest challenge. I would say it is the first, but you cannot deny self if you don’t realize there is a self that needs denied… so, awareness of the problem is number one with corrective action a close number two. This is the foundation of the Christ cure for our brokenness and loneliness: denial of self. Do not be confused, it is not the denial of the true self, but the obliteration of all the broken false selves. This is what Jesus invites every follower to do first before taking their first step as a true disciple. Remember Jesus’ words…
26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27, 33)
The call to renounce all we are is not specifically a literal imperative to “hate” our family, or “sell” all that you have, or enter into an ascetic lifestyle. Some of these actions may occur in the lives of some people, but specifically, Jesus is telling each of us we have to let go of our false identities…the selves we have created for our own value…the cure for our need to belong…the cure for our loneliness…the cure for our safety and provision. In so many cases these broken images we have created have become our idols. This may not be something we are consciously aware of, but it is a truth nonetheless. Whatever we are unwilling to release for the sake of our God, Jesus Christ, has become or is an idol. There are many examples of this in Scripture and several that are found in the Gospels themselves; perhaps you might remember one or two yourself.
- Challenge number three is forgiveness. The roots of brokenness run deep. Even after agreeing to deny self and beginning the first steps of becoming a disciple of Jesus, the work of curing our brokenness is only starting. We like to believe that once we approach the altar of God with our brokenness we are instantly healed. Hardly. Soul healing is something that is ultimate. It will happen in completeness only when God brings all things to completion in the fullness of time. We are supposed to be vessels in transition growing in grace and progressing in sanctification as our false images are re-imaged in the perfect image of Christ (Imago Dei) until our physical life on earth ends or Jesus returns. In the interim we are confronted with healing opportunities from our Great Physician; many of these opportunities are cloaked in the guise of forgiveness. Some of the strongest words taught by Jesus have to do with forgiveness and how we treat our enemies (and yes, some of our greatest enemies are in the form of family).
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matt. 6:14-15)
35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. 37 Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:35-37)
And this from the writer of Hebrews…
14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Hebrews 12:14-15)
The roots of brokenness run deep and brokenness can almost always be traced to issues of unforgivenness. Bitterness and resentment are the offspring of unforgivenness. These broken places of the broken and bruised soul can only be healed by releasing them…forgiveness is the treatment. God, Jesus, demands it if you will follow Him and be healed.
- The fourth challenge is Narrow Path Living. This is the continuing testing of our perseverance and the purification of our souls. Narrow Path Living introduces us to our true self and helps us to live into our true identities. What is Narrow Path Living? I believe it can be summed up in the teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6). It is in these teachings (primarily) that Jesus teaches what the Kingdom of God “looks like.” I hesitate to say this is an instruction book or set of guidelines for Christians to live by, because it can become a “do-good checklist” and missing the Spirit of Christ’s instructions is missing the entirety of Christ Himself…which leads me to my next point.
- The fifth challenge (and the last I will discuss in this list) is constant surrender to the Holy Spirit. The promise of God, Jesus Christ, is that He would not leave us alone without a Guide, a Comforter, and Power. He has invited us to partake in Him through receiving Him; YES, the very Person of God in the form of the Third Member of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit. Through asking for and then receiving the Holy Spirit, we surrender our will to the Guiding Voice of God who now resides within our soul. This is critical to the disciple of Christ…without surrender to the Holy Spirit, we are powerless to live out the Christian life and realize the full and abundant life that is found as God reveals in us our true identity. When we fail to surrender to the Rule of God through the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, we grieve Him…we lose track of our true identity and revert to one of the false selves or create a new pharisaical false self for our identity.
The issues of our brokenness are far more complex than what I have described in this writing. The challenges are more in number than what I have enumerated in the above lists, but I believe what I’ve shared can be a starting point to stir your own thinking and reflections. The point I would like to reemphasize is that God realizes our brokenness and has sent to us a complete path to healing. It begins with recognizing the brokenness in ourselves then realizing that nothing we do within ourselves can fix our brokenness. Equally important is extending the grace God has extended to us toward others by recognizing their brokenness; it is here that we can do the work of practicing unconditional forgiveness in the same way that God has forgiven us…as we forgive, our healing progresses and our true identities are further solidified and realized in ourselves. Continuing the life of grace-living and forgiving we learn the way of the Narrow Path Life, in this style of living we learn to experience the always-on and always-with-us Presence of the Living God in the Person of the Indwelling Holy Spirit. Our surrender to this Holy Spirit re-imaging of us moves us ever closer to the “White Stone” person God intended before time began (Revelation 2:17)…and this is our true identity: The one who was created in the very image of God. Brokenness runs deep, but the tragedy of broken man doesn’t have to end in tragedy. The Victory of Christ can also be your victory and my victory too.
Broken Humanity: The Tragedy of the False Self
The roots of mankind’s brokenness run deep; yes, they run very deep indeed. I think no soul is left untouched or unaffected by the web spun by the brokenness in hearts and lives of men and women. Handed down to us from ancestors we may have never known even before the moment we draw our first breath, secrets of the false self are encoded in our DNA…because brokenness runs deep. Legions of broken souls and false selves permeate the history of our lives, molding and giving shape to the shell identities we individually wrestle with until… Until, we find and uncover our one true identity that is given to us and found in the Person of Jesus Christ. Yes, until we find this true self, we invariably stagger, stutter, and stumble our way through faith, relationships, and life. Our entire hope rests on finding and realizing this true self through the reconciliatory, redemptive, and restorative work of our Savior God, King Jesus.
Many who read this will nod their heads in agreement. There are enough words here pointing to the message embedded in the Gospel of our Lord that it sounds familiar; however, because our brokenness runs so very deep it is sometimes difficult to realize how infected we truly are.
The Conundrum: Being Good vs. Born Again
I was standing in line at a grocery outlet the other day and overheard a conversation between a couple of people. They were talking about issues of faith and what qualified them to be “alright” with God. It was very interesting to say the least. The conversation went on for quite some time, but I never heard mention of Jesus or his redemptive-reconciliatory work as being the cornerstone of what makes us “alright” with God. In the end, the qualifying conclusion of one of the persons was a resounding proclamation that, “I am a good person; therefore, I am alright with God.” The implication here is all that God requires of us is…for us to be good. The problem with this thinking is that it is in error. God doesn’t require us to be good; He requires us to be born again and reconciled to Him through Jesus Christ. This is the only thing that makes us “alright” with God.
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
As a general rule, we do not like dealing with our brokenness. In most cases, we would prefer to ignore it altogether pretending it never existed in the first place. Jesus doesn’t give us the option of avoiding our brokenness; he invariably and inevitably forces our confrontation with the false identities we have created for ourselves. Dealing with these “false selves” is the first step to becoming whole again and following Jesus.
26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27, 33)
I think this is an incredible passage of Scripture and may represent the single greatest point of failure in the journey of many (if not most) Christians today. I suppose my thesis will only make sense in the context of what your end goal is. If you ascribe to the teaching of Jesus Christ, then your end goal is union with God (John 17:20-23) and this God is YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of David, and the God who is incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. The premise of the Christian faith is man’s brokenness through the disobedience of one man (Adam) and the reconciliation (union) of man with God through the redemptive work of one man (Jesus). If your premise and your end goal are different than what I have proposed, you do not follow the teaching of Jesus Christ and my thesis will likely be irrelevant.
So, what’s all this talk about brokenness, roots, true self, and false self about? There is a lot of background information that can be very helpful in filling in the blanks, but suffice it to say we are discussing the human condition. Discussion about the true self and the false self can be very involved and can get very clinical with respect to psychoanalysis. I have found reading from spiritual masters more helpful to me for understanding the nature and nuance of the “two selves” than I have found from reading perspectives from psychiatry (although I have found the psychological insights helpful in their own right). Personally, I have found this study fascinating and it has been a very eye-opening experience for me spiritually. These studies and my reflection on the natures of the true and false selves are the impetus for this writing.
Brokenness runs deep… Family of origin plays a huge part in shaping us and contributing to our brokenness. I think no one is exempt from its negative influence. I say this with regard and respect even to positive influence from the family of origin; no matter how good it might be, there are still contrasting and severely negative influences especially with consideration to the spiritual nature of man and his reconciliation with the Triune God of Creation. The apostle Paul makes the most notable presentation of this ontological argument in his letter to the Romans (Romans 5:12-21). A couple of very pertinent excerpted points from this text follow:
12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people (Romans 5:12, 18).
I think many Christians will concede this measure of brokenness and “original sin” as a factor in their personal lives…at least intellectually. Truthfully, they may even be moved to proactive measures because of it, but still the “Adamic” nature and the original fall of man is a bit distant from us. Its results, however, are not.
“…Death came to all people.” We are born (spiritually) dead and from the moment we take in our first breaths we begin to develop, cultivate, and nurture our false selves. Actually, I think the nature of the false self begins in or even before the womb when our parents have ideas, dreams, even names for us before we are born. So many things contribute to the false self identity; genetic predisposition is not the least of factors, but plays a big part. Other contributors might be family histories, traditions, and demographic influence as well and these are only the surface scrapings of how our false identities begin to be shaped and cultivated. I know this begins to sound convoluted and confusing, but bear with me a moment as I try to bring some clarity to a very complex subject.
God’s Word tells us that He has a plan for our lives…even before we were shaped in the womb of our mother. Hear these words from Scripture.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:13-17 NIV).
5 Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart… (Jeremiah 1:5 NIV).
11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).
God does indeed have a plan and an identity for us and it has little to do with the false identities handed to us or the false selves we create for ourselves and spend the rest of our lives living into. Hopefully, a couple of illustrations might be helpful bringing the imagery of the false self into focus.
Let’s say I am the first born child to high-achieving parents; my mother is an intellect and scholar perhaps a valedictorian in her high school, but never finished college. My father happened to be an athlete who lettered in several sports, but was not skilled enough to pursue sports at a collegiate level. My parents are typical of the average American family with a median income; my dad is the primary support in the household and my mom stays at home with me, the only child. My mom has big dreams for me and pushes me at an early age to develop my academic persona; she tells me repeatedly how “brilliant” I am and that I will be a great thinker, growing up to be a doctor or lawyer or maybe even president. My mom tells me I will never “drop out” of school like she did and be a failure… instead, I will be a success. My dad has hopes and dreams for me too; he tells me I’m going to be the greatest pitcher the state has seen. As I grow up, my parents continue to reinforce these identities in me. Now, I’m not saying it is wrong to have hopes and goals for ourselves or our children, but this is an example of how false identities get thrust upon us. As it was pointed out earlier, we are born with broken identities (the Adamic sin nature) and spiritually dead. Within us is a void, a loneliness that craves to be satisfied with purpose and identity. God desires to fill that loneliness with Himself and instill His purpose for our lives. The problem is brokenness runs deep. Let me share another example before I explain further.
My mother gets pregnant with me while she is in high school; I’m the product of a one-night stand. My mother happens to be the child of a single mother herself. She’s witnessed her mom bring home many men and has learned to find her identity in her physical looks and sexuality. As I have grown up, I’ve watched my mother be abused by the ravages of abusive men, drugs, and alcohol. My mom’s primary source of income is working as a waitress and bartender…we don’t have much in the way of personal belongings and we are constantly struggling to just scrape by. The circumstances of my life have shaped my false identities and perceptions of my worldview.
These examples represent only two of thousands upon thousands of scenarios, but they present how the circumstances of our family of origin and our environments can shape our identities and as we live into them those identities are perpetuated into the lives of future generations unless the cycle is broken by our rebirth and re-imaging into the true identities God has destined for each of us before time began (Psalm 139:16).
There is much more to say here, but we’ll need to pick that up in Part Two. More to come…
Book Review: The Kingdom Life
By: Alan Andrews; Gen. Ed.
Publisher: NavPress ISBN: 9781600062803
I like this book; I like this book a lot. I don’t fully understand why it doesn’t seem to have gained more traction or popularity on the “spiritual formation” reading list. Maybe this book is more popular than I imagine, but as a person who stays fairly up-to-date with books circulating in the field of Christian education and spiritual formation, I simply haven’t heard a lot about The Kingdom Life. If my suspicions are correct, it is sad because I believe this is an excellent piece of work and I plan to use it as a primary resource for teaching the basic elements of spiritual formation. I have not found a single resource that can match the elements of process and theology contained in this one book. Best of all, I believe it is accessible to every person wherever they may be in there spiritual journey and wherever they may be in their maturity thereof. I have been working on curriculum and study presentation where I plan to use this book for both 101 and 201 level teaching and it is for that reason I am baffled that more hasn’t been written or reviewed for this book.
The contributors of this book are a veritable gold mine of experience and knowledge, many of them having authored books individually on various topics and teaching involving spiritual formation. This collaborative work came out of the formation of a group named TACT (Theological and Cultural Thinkers Group). It seems the group experienced a number of growing pains, but through perseverance and humility was able to come together with diversity of background, experience, and tradition to compile this book which represents a generalized common experience for believers on the path of spiritual formation.
The book is separated into two main sections; Part One consists of the Process Elements of Spiritual Formation and Part Two consisting of the Theological Elements of Spiritual Formation. Each section features specific “elements” which lend shape and substance to the theology and the process of spiritual formation. For instance, under the process elements there are chapter titles discussing the Gospel of the Kingdom as it pertains to spiritual formation, communities of grace, and transformation. While the theological elements are discussed in chapters titled The Trinity, the Holy Spirit, and The Bible to name a few.
At the end of each chapter there are questions and points for reflection and discussion. While these can be used for individual study and edification, I believe a small group or class setting would be most beneficial allowing for social interaction and diverse points of view (this in my personal opinion). Also included at the end of each chapter is a list of titles for further reading relevant to the material covered in said chapter. Finally, the book is very well cited and documented with resource material; this annotated index is included in a “notes” section at the end of the book.
As I mentioned, I don’t know why I haven’t heard more about The Kingdom Life…perhaps it may be that it reads somewhat like a textbook and that may be true, but it should not be discounted or put aside for those reasons. This book is full of great information and resource material and would be an invaluable addition to the library of anyone working in the area of discipleship.
You Don’t Know the Scriptures…
“Your mistake is that you don’t know the scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God… You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:24, 34)
I’ve read this passage in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 12:1-35) many times; the account itself actually appears in three of the four gospels and each time I’ve read it I’ve had a few “soul shivers.” There is some pretty bizarre stuff going on in this incident as Jesus teaches through parable and launches indictments against those teachers of the law, Pharisees, Sadducees. By this time in Jesus’ ministry those who wielded power amongst and over the Jews had begun to take notice of Jesus and most of them didn’t like what they noticed. Jesus caused them problems and posed a serious threat to their power base and their lifestyle. Many of these power brokers had witnessed personally or heard of the miracles of Jesus. They had heard the murmurs of people referring to Jesus as the Christ. They had reason to fear. [Shiver #1] They began to seriously plot ways to silence and kill Jesus. As much as we are familiar with the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus Christ it is understandable that we overlook aspects of that momentous act, but I cannot imagine (from where I sit now) being one of the people plotting the death of God.
Now, these people who were plotting against Jesus and those who Jesus was effectively calling out, they weren’t ignorant people. These were the people who knew the Scriptures; they made their life and business by being experts in the Torah. They knew the writings of the Prophets, the Psalms, and multiple interpretations from the greatest Rabbis in the history of Israel. These groups that Jesus was calling out weren’t pretenders or wannabes, they were sharp when it came to God’s word and the history of the Jews. The interesting thing about this fact is the audacity of the men who would have known about the power and authority of the coming Messiah. Even if they didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah, he was being recognized as prophet with power like that of Elijah… capable of miracles over nature, miracles healing disease, miracles of raising the dead. [Shiver #2] Yet, they were going to try to trick him (Jesus) with the Law of God…the Law of God of which Jesus knew even more intimately than they did.
As the story unfolds Jesus amazes the Pharisees and Teachers with his wisdom and his unflinching, perfect responses to their trick questions. [Shiver #3] Crazy as it sounds, they don’t stop with their plotting attempts to trick him and come at Jesus again with a convoluted question about resurrection and marriage. In fact, the trick question is so convoluted that it is based on incorrect understanding of God’s Kingdom and Rule. Jesus calls them on it and tells them unequivocally; “You Don’t Know the Scriptures…” Oh my. [Shiver #4]
The absurdity doesn’t stop here and neither do my “soul shivers.” Jesus’ audience remains clueless as he tells them they do not know the Scriptures; not only are they unfazed, but their audacity and ignorance knows no limit. [Shiver #5] One of the teachers of the law thinking Jesus’ “You don’t know the Scriptures” comment is pretty sharp and undoubtedly not realizing that Jesus was probably including him in the “You don’t know” group, approaches him with another trick question and asks him what the greatest of all the commandments is. We’re familiar with what happens next, but I’ll include the passage with Jesus’ response as it follows the teacher’s question:
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Mark 12:29-33
The man says to Jesus; “Well said, teacher” or “Good one, Jesus!” I don’t know if this epitomizes ignorance or arrogance, but it has to go on record as one of the most public displays of one of them, if not both. [Shiver #6] Then comes the biggest soul shiver of them all for me… The account reads that Jesus notices the man, the teacher of the law, has answered him wisely. Jesus recognizes the man has wisdom about God’s word…this implies that he not only knows God’s word, but he knows how to use it. Then [Shiver #7] Jesus tells him; “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Not far from the Kingdom of God. He knows God’s word. He knows how to use it. Jesus, God, Savior, Messiah gives recognition and affirmation to this man’s knowledge and wisdom about God’s Rule, but tells him; “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” The implication is that the man is not in or part of the kingdom of God…yet. We don’t know if he makes it into the kingdom or not, but at this juncture…he’s not far from it. The scene ends with these words; “And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34). I wonder why no one dared ask any more questions.
I can’t shake the shivers this Gospel account brings to me. I think it is too easy for us to look upon this short narrative and keep it at arm’s length. We’ll look at this story and think things like; “How dumb can those Pharisees be?” “How arrogant those teachers of the law are…” “Wow, those Sadducees are really stupid!” All the while we commit the same errors on an even grander scale. So many of us, I know I have been guilty, usurp and modify God’s precepts to fit our personal desires and lifestyles. Truth be known, if we truly knew the Scriptures and the Power of the God who gave them to us, we would not be making the same arrogant mistakes those teachers and religious leaders did. My greatest fear, and why my soul shivers remain, is that we arrogantly and presumptuously think we know the Scriptures. The men Jesus told they did not know it… well, they had the entire Old Testament memorized and most of the rabbinical commentaries that went with it. I wonder how many of us can say the same. Then, even recognizing the wisdom of at least one teacher, Jesus still told him he wasn’t in the kingdom yet… “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
There is a lot more that can be said about the details of this Markian account, the more I examine my own heart the more I am driven to humble myself and ask the Spirit to guide my understanding. I don’t want to assume or presume anything. I desire to walk humbly, submissive, obedient, and willing to say “yes” to whatever is asked of me by my Lord. At the end of the day, I don’t want to be recognized for my wisdom and how far I am from the Kingdom. The words I want to hear are the words spoken to a servant; “Well done, good and faithful servant; come and share your Master’s happiness.”
The Mind of Christ
“Who can know the LORD’S thoughts? Who knows enough to teach him? But we understand these things, for we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:16 NLT)
This is a very popular passage of Scripture, often quoted within the circles of Christendom. I, too, have quoted it countless times… I wonder how often we quote things and don’t really consider their meaning? Or, perhaps we quote them so many times out of habit they lose their meaning?
As I’ve been reading through the prophet Isaiah the past month or more, I have been repeatedly encouraged as the Spirit of God reminds me of who I am in Him. The enemy of my soul would tell me I am alone and tempt me to doubt the things that God has planted in my heart. The enemy of my soul would try to tempt me to choose lesser paths. The enemy of my soul would tempt me to engage service for God that would distract me from the specific task He destined for me. I know there are people who disagree with this way of thinking, but I know in my heart that God has stirred something… I know this something may not be a task that would be considered grand on any stage, but it is a service that is unique and especially designated by God…for me. I believe that events, mile markers, and experiences over the past years of my life have been leading to this one thing. I say yes. I will pursue the dream God has born in my heart. Words that have encouraged me today follow:
The Sovereign LORD has given me his words of wisdom… Morning by morning he wakens me and opens my understanding to his will. The Sovereign LORD has spoken to me, and I have listened. Therefore, I have set my face like a stone, determined to do his will. And I know that I will not be put to shame. (Isaiah 50:4-5, 7)
“Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will begin to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)
The promise of God is that He speaks to us, if we will listen and obey. The promise of God is that He desires to transform our mind and give us a new way of thinking… we will actually understand what He wants for us because we will have the “mind of Christ.” Amazing! But, this is exactly what His Word tells us. God gives us His wisdom. He wants us to succeed. He wants us to do wonderful things that bring glory to His name and help to reconcile and restore His people, His kingdom, and His creation. The crucial point of this realization is to continue to listen, continue to trust, and always obey.
I waited patiently for the LORD to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along. He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what he has done and be amazed. They will put their trust in the LORD. Oh the joys of those who trust the LORD. Your plans for us are too numerous to list. You have no equal. Now that you have made me listen, I finally understand. I take joy in doing your will, my God, for your instructions are written on my heart. May all who search for you be filled with joy and gladness in you. May those who love your salvation repeatedly shout, “The LORD is great!” Let the LORD keep me in his thoughts. You are my helper and my savior, O, my God. Amen. (Psalm 40: 1-6, 8, 16, 17)
I’m stuck; for the past several days I’ve got a portion of Scripture lodged in my head that keeps gnawing at me and won’t let me go. I’ve looked at several study Bibles and a few commentaries, but nothing has jumped out to me that helps me resolve what the Spirit is speaking to me… that is; we have work to do and we are going to be held to account for the work we have not taken responsibility for. Maybe it would help if I shared the snippet of Scripture. The passage comes from the Book of The Revelation and chapter nineteen, verse seven.
Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready… (Rev. 19:7)
Now, there are a lot of things to consider here hermeneutically, contextually, symbolically, and otherwise. I think we might be able to find plenty to debate and discuss about what is taking place at this point of the revelation…but that is not my purpose today. My meditation has been on six words and what those six words mean to me, to us… the “following” Church and Bride of the Lord Jesus Christ. His Bride has made herself ready.
Okay, I’m gonna make a leap here, but I think the passage is talking about the Church, those who profess their belief and salvation through the atoning work of Jesus Christ (that would be us). We are “herself,” the Church.
His Bride has made herself ready.
The question that begs asking is, “what does it mean to make herself ready?” I have often heard that sanctification (or whatever you wish to call it) is a lifelong process that never really completes on this side of eternity. I don’t know that my understanding of that process (sanctification) is absolute or comprehensive at this juncture with my theology, but in either event I believe that regardless of whether it is attainable or not on this side of eternity, we should be striving for it in its completion on this side of eternity.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. Philippians 3:12-15
12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ Ephesians 4:12-13
As I said, I don’t know if sanctification finds completion on this side of eternity or not…but I do believe it is what we diligently strive for with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This, I believe, is giving ourselves over completely to the transforming work of grace that results in wholly recreated, no longer frail and fallen, human beings. What is our work in this?
Herein lies part of the problem; “work” is a four-letter word for many souls belonging to the Church. However, the greater truth (my personal gleanings) I have found in Scripture is that our salvation, while made available and complete only through the work of God in Jesus Christ, is still a partnership. I don’t believe God saves us against our will… likewise, I don’t believe God sanctifies us against our will. In similar terms, I don’t believe that God “whitewashes” the Church or “Bride” against her will or in spite of her will. And, I think this is why “His Bride has made herself ready” has been grating on me for the past few days.
I think we like to slip our own responsibility in this partnership; we like every benefit we receive in the arrangement, but we prefer to dodge the elements that put the onus on us. It is by grace that we have been saved, but it is the discipline and obedience of the follower that works out the salvation to beautiful and sanctifying works of grace that ultimately culminate in a beautiful, spotless, holy Bride who has made herself ready.
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Ephesians 5:25-27
What is my bottom line?
Tough call…this bottom line; I think it amounts to self-examination and a higher standard. What am I doing to make myself ready, or do I expect God to automagically make me ready. I know better than to think that is going to happen. I don’t see a single example where God saved, sanctified, or de-spotified anyone against their will in the Biblical narrative; not one. Maybe it happened, probably it didn’t…I wouldn’t hedge any bet on it, seeing that the majority (if not all) of our examples show that He doesn’t. Likewise, I don’t think God is going to do this for the Church. Ultimately, I think we are going to be held to account more for the things that we did not do as much as for the things we have done or ever do. I have no intentions of this happening…at least in my life and according to what I am capable of doing. I know God has revealed truth TRUTH to me and it includes getting off my “padded side” and exercising the discipline and (dare I say it) work that needs to be done on my part for sanctification and renewal of my soul as I work for the sanctification and renewal of the Church and ultimately the sanctification and renewal of all Creation. That’s what we are made for and what we are made to do (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).
A complacent church that waits for stuff to happen is not making herself ready. A complacent Christian that waits for stuff to happen is not making himself or herself ready. A person that is not ready is…well…not ready. What does that say about us and what does that say to us? It is interesting that I see people of all ages (I used to be one) working diligently and highly disciplined for certain things they consider to be high value …or things they deem “worth it.” Think about it; high performance athletes working for a championship, professional artists, farmers, people working toward a “comfortable” retirement, soldiers training for dangerous missions, and the list could go on. It is interesting that the word pictures in the Bible reflect some of these same examples (1 Cor. 9:25; 2 Timothy 2:3-7).
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, talks about a principle or rule he calls the 10,000-Hour Rule. Studies suggest that the key to success in any field has nothing to do with talent. It’s simply practice, 10,000 hours of it — 20 hours a week for 10 years. Now, I’m not going to debate the principle here; I do think empowerment and indwelling by God’s Holy Spirit weighs in on the Christian in a different light than the sheer weight and numbers of practice hours. However, I think Gladwell’s point can be applied if we look at how much time and effort we put into our own discipleship. Similar studies reveal that a large number of professing Christians have never read through the entire Bible even one time. Many (if not a majority) of Christians have little or no involvement with their faith outside of Sunday worship gatherings. So, let’s do some math. If it takes 20 hours a week for 10 years to become successful in something according to the Outlier or 10,000 Hour Rule, what does it take for the “average” Christian who might spend 1.5 hours at a weekend service and 15 minutes of devotional reading 6 days a week (total 3.0 hours per week)? The answer is sixty four years. This considers that the person in our example never misses a Sunday service and never misses a 15 minute daily devotional. On the other hand, if our passion is such as David, the Psalmist, who meditates on the Word of God day and night… or the apostle Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” we might take a number like 10 hours a day from meditation, prayer, Bible reading, etc. for our figures and we turn out 2 years and 9 months to become a “high power” Disciple of Christ. Interesting “tale of the tape” there. I don’t want these numbers to be some hard and fast formula; as I said, I believe God’s Holy Spirit plays the predominant and preeminent role in our developing discipleship. Although, as I also said, we are in partnership with God in this discipleship and our part of the program is willing and passionate involvement in the process that requires sacrifice, discipline, and effort (or pardon my language, but work).
“His Bride has made herself ready”
So that I’m not tarred and feathered, let me state that no amount of work on our own can make a person ready for Jesus. You can “do all the right things” and your heart still be very far from God; take for instance, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. It’s a fine line, but that line is clearly defined in the heart of a man. Jesus said; “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…” (Matthew 6:21). I think his point, while made about money, can be made about our passion or anything else we place value on. The substance of our faith is not defined by the things we do, but the evidence of our faith is realized by the actions and efforts that our lives follow. We give energy and effort to the things we believe in. How much energy and effort are you putting into your faith in Jesus Christ? If you call yourself Christian, you are a member of the Bride. Are you making yourself ready?
“Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting or should we keep looking for someone else?” (John the Baptist; Matthew 11:5-6)
I wonder how many times I ask this question over the course of a day. I know out of one corner of my mouth I profess Jesus as the Lord and Savior of my life, and out of the other corner I want to trust myself (the known quantity) with everything that is a known quantity… everything that is a tangible reality… which pretty much leaves, well, everything. I’m trying desperately not to take control of my life. I’m trying desperately to let God lead me into the unknown and trust Him completely with everything that is my life, my family, my vocation, my provision, my credibility, my sincerity, my everything and anything, and anything else I may have forgotten or not included… I’m trying to trust God for leadership and divine direction. I’m not lying; I’m anxious and with each passing day doubt gnaws at me and I wonder; “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting or should we keep looking for someone else?” The days begin and the days end… I’m feeling rested and restless. I work through my disciplines and I wait. I think and I wait. I pray and I wait. I doubt and I wait. I believe and I wait. I dream and I wait. I trust… and I wait.
But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. I will sing to the Lord because He is good to me (Psalm 13:5-6). How joyful are those who fear the Lord and delight in obeying His commands (Psalm 112:1).
I can’t imagine what John the Baptist must have felt or wondered while he waited alone in his prison cell. He was the herald, a life decided before he was conceived to announce the coming of the Messiah King, he knew Christ… John was divinely blessed with sight that was capable of recognizing the Lamb of God and pointing men to Him. Yet, he wondered… he questioned, and he doubted. I believe he was comforted with affirmation from the answer Jesus sent back to him; “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor. And tell him, ‘God blesses those who do not turn away because of me.’” (Matthew 11:5-6). Sometimes it takes a memory jolt to set our doubts straight… and being close to the Word is that jolt we need. John was close to the Word. He was a cousin. He was a witness; both with his own eyes and with a bond through the Holy Spirit. We too are bonded with the Word; we are regenerated children, adopted into the household of God and indwelled by the same Holy Spirit as was Jesus and John. We too, are affirmed.
I am the one who searches minds and hearts… (Revelation 2:23). Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24).
I am blessed by not turning away to feed the doubt that would devour me. I sit today in the quiet… wondering what tomorrow will bring. I don’t know, but I will trust that I do not have to look for someone else and certainly not myself. I will trust that God has a plan for meeting the daily needs of food, shelter, and clothing for my family… and I will trust that He has a plan to use the gifts and experiences He has developed in me. I will wait.
3 Trust in the Lord and do Good. 5 Commit your way to the Lord. 7 Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him. 23 If the Lord delight’s in a man’s way, He makes his steps firm. 24 Though he stumble, he will not fall for the Lord upholds him with His hand. 34 Wait for the Lord and keep His way. (Psalm 37) 6 Surely you desire the truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. 10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51)
Maker and Ruler of all: Govern my life by your wisdom and counsel. Forgive me in those areas where I have failed you, and strengthen me further wherein I have served you well. Save me from complacency and smugness over my spiritual successes as much as from despair and guilt over my spiritual failures. Grant in increasing measure the gift of your Holy Spirit to me, that I may grow in grace and thus more fully praise you day by day; through Christ who strengthens me. Amen. (This Day: A Wesleyan Way of Prayer)
2 Hear my prayer, O God; listen to the words of my mouth. 4 Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me. (Psalm 54) 4 In God, whose word I praise. In God I trust; I will not be afraid. 12 I am under vows to you, O God; I will present my thank offerings to you 13 For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling that I may walk before God in the light of life (Psalm 56).
Do not seek the perfection of the law in human virtues, for it is not found perfect in them. Its perfection is hidden in the Cross of Christ. (St Mark the Ascetic)