Chapter 21 - Christlike by Bill Hull
Christians are to be followers of Christ – “little Christs” – in the world, touching the lives of people around us with the love of Christ, one person at a time. Love cannot be resisted. C. S. Lewis wrote, “The church exists for nothing else but to draw men to Christ, and make them little Christs.” The result of being a “disciple” – a follower of Christ – is that we influence others through our ordinary lives. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10) – life as God intended can be full only when Christ Himself embodies us. When we “follow Christ” we grant Him permission to rule us, and when He rules us the transformation of our culture becomes possible. It does not happen quickly or easily or automatically – it requires intentionality and is anything but passive.
The problem in the church is that far too many Christians “don’t act” like they “believe.” The Greek term translated “gospel” is the word euaggelion, which means “good news.” There is a lot of misinform-mation in the church today regarding the gospel – some believe it is just a “forgiveness-only gospel” that simply focuses on becoming a Christian, and ignores the life that is to be lived. . . others believe it is a “social gospel” that emphasizes the need of helping others. . . others see it as a “relevant gospel” that seeks God in a more personal way with the intent of being relevant to the watching world, yet it rejects the idea that absolute truth can be known on the human level. . . another gospel is the “prosperity gospel” that believes the physical blessings of health and wealth are as sure as the saving of the soul – to these, material blessing becomes one of the ways you know God is blessing you. . . the “consumer gospel” is by far the most popular of the gospels that is being preached in the United States today – this gospel caters to one’s self-interest; it combines the appeal of forgiveness with the abdication of any obligation to discipleship. Since we live in a world of consumption and assertiveness, we endorse churches that are impatient and impetuous – everything must be faster and bigger; the gospel of speed and fame is a natural by-product of our culture, which is driven by a mania to succeed. As such, this gospel is preoccupied with the youth program, the type of music, the time and length of services, and the personalities of the clergy.
The consumer gospel does not welcome “discipleship” (the intentional commitment to follow Jesus and live for others). That is why Dallas Willard states, “The reason why the Christian faith has failed to transform the masses and to make a more just and peaceful world, is because it has failed to transform the human character.” Discipleship is not an essential part of the church today. Most American Christians embrace a hybrid kind of gospel that melds the forgiveness-only with the consumer gospel – this creates Christians who live by “formulas” and interpret the Christian message as primarily a narrative about “their own needs.” The world is in orbit around the individual’s need for personal peace and affluence. Those in this camp find themselves trapped in little enclaves of the evangelical subculture that believes the only things that count are “saving souls” and “church work.” (1-40)
Jesus said things like, “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God. . . that is why I was sent” (Lk 4:43). The Kingdom of God is a locality where God rules, where His will is done. That locality can be anywhere, including the human heart, the home, the workplace, the marketplace, any place. Jesus said His kingdom was not of this world. He instructed His disciples to “seek it first” and everything else that is important will fall into place (Mt 6:33). The full force of the Kingdom of God gospel is that followers of Jesus are transformed in their spirits… they are reborn people set on their way by a new life… they are driven by the Spirit of God to make the world right. Those same people become Jesus to the world around them – feeding the hungry, helping children, assisting the poor, caring for the needy, and doing it in the name and power of the living Christ. The gospel of the kingdom is not only about saving souls; it is about the saved changing and caring for their world – this is the gospel that Jesus, Paul, Peter and the early church believed and taught.
The early church grew to about “ten thousand” by the end of the first century. It continued to grow exponentially until it peaked with regard to population at around 34 million in 350 AD – or 56 percent of the Roman world. The church did not sponsor organized evangelistic meetings to speak of – instead Christians impacted the world through their deeds. One of the reasons for the rise of the faith was the church’s protection of human life – the early church was against infanticide and abortion, which were routinely practiced in the Greco-Roman world; Christians took care of orphans and widows in a culture that discarded them (Jam 1:27); and most dramatic of all, they stayed in the cities and nursed the sick, even during plagues when everyone else abandoned them – early Christians risked their lives to nurse the sick because it was a value lived out in the faith community. This was Christian character at work. By the way, the church did not have dedicated buildings during this period – as one wise sage put it, “The church was at its best when it had the least.”
The church in the West has responded in a number of good ways to the needs of the world. . . by building hospitals, providing on-the-ground health care and emergency services such as the Red Cross, drilling wells to bring clean water where there is none, erecting schools where there are none, teaching people to read and to right, establishing written languages where there are none, fighting against corruption in government, fighting for freedom of religion and speech, etc. – these Christian global missions have been conducted primarily through Western philanthropy. But the “kingdom effect” has nearly been lost in the West during the past fifty years, in large part, because western Christians have “privatized” their spirituality – the problem is, personal spirituality was never meant to be private; it was always meant to be public, that it might affect the world around us. The local church was simply meant to be an “outpost” in the larger world of the kingdom – it is just a part of the kingdom. The church has grown significantly in the United States over the last three hundred years, but it is now on the wane because it has seriously compromised its values. Dallas Willard writes: “Widespread trans-formation of character through wisely disciplined discipleship to Christ can [renew the church and] transform our world. It can disarm the structural evils that have always dominated humankind and now threaten to destroy the world.” (41-56)
When we first become Christians, most of us have a fairly naïve vision of our religious future. We generally assume that with a few more Bible studies and a little training, that temptation will get easier to handle. . . that our prayer life will soon become as natural as eating or sleeping. . . that our desire for material things will quickly be brought into submission. . . and that our spiritual growth will soon let us float above the fray! Life takes these naïve impressions and shatters them on the hard rocks of reality. Being formed into the image of Christ is a lifelong journey. Furthermore, it is really naïve to think that becoming more spiritual will eliminate the sinful desires of the flesh. The Scriptures tells us that we must be constantly on guard against the flesh, because it is crouching at the door ready to pounce without warn-ing (Gen 4:7). The flesh never improves; it is actually in a state of continual degeneration, where it is getting worse and worse! (Eph 4:22) – your flesh was not nearly as corrupt when you were ten years old as it is today; that is just the reality of the flesh (your sin nature); get used to it, because your fallen nature is going to be with you until that day when you enter into God’s presence. But that does not mean it has to be in control! The battle is a spiritual one – as such, Scripture exhorts us to train our bodies to become our servants – not our rulers (1 Cor 9:24-27).
The new life in Christ does mature with “intentional discipleship,” but it is a competitive struggle, and the opponent will score points. With that said, there are many Christians for whom spiritual maturity is a far-off fantasy, because they believed that after a time of basic training, the Christian experience would become “more natural” and “more easily managed.” That is why there is disillusionment and confusion as to why one stops making progress and why more heinous sins continue to have a grip on us. The truth of the matter is, throughout our life our primary enemy is “self” – the desire to please self, and to interpret life through our own limited perspective. The goal of Christlikeness is to live in such a way that God is pleased, to interpret life from His perspective, and to live for others – incidentally, when we stop exercising spiritually, we regress. Remember this wise old saying, “What do you have to do to get out of shape?” — “Nothing!”
The problem for many of us is that we begin to live on “yesterday’s manna,” and our biblical knowledge base. When that happens, we begin to go soft on prayer, Bible reading, meditation, worship, fellowship, and service, and start “spiritually regressing.” Regression is gradual – it is a product of a negative pattern, and negative patterns are most often characterized by “ease.” Ease comes naturally; you do not need to practice it – you just drift into it. A positive pattern requires intentional discipline, and almost always, the fellowship and input of godly friends. Structure and accountability empower people, and enable them to practice what makes them successful. (57-74)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer distilled the meaning of a disciple’s life thus: “It is nothing else than bondage to Jesus Christ alone. . . Jesus is the only significance. . . He alone matters.” The apostle Paul tells us the purpose of the believer’s life is that he “becomes like Christ” (Rom 8:29). C. S. Lewis expressed it this way: “We are to become little Christs.” We are not to be conformed to “this world” – that is, we are not to let the pressures of the world influence us in its direction (Rom 12:2); this is an ever-present problem for believers, and that is the battle that must be fought. What is it that causes people to conform? People conform when there is more to gain from conforming than from not conforming. Rather than being conformed to this world, we are to be “conformed to the image of Christ” (Rom 8:29), and this happens “by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2). Paul writes, “We are to have the same attitude that Jesus had” (Phil 2:5) – that attitude was one of “humility.” Humility characterizes the person who understands that all gifts, talents, possessions, opportunities, and accomplishments are from the hand of God. Humility attracts God’s grace – pride distances one from it. Without humility, conformity to Christ is impossible, because it only happens by grace (Jam 4:6). When we lose our pride, lay aside our desire to control, decide to obey and live for others, humility becomes our habit. Humility makes its way into our character through the regular practice of prayer, the assimilation of God’s Word, and living for others.
According to Philippians, submission, obedience, and sacrifice were hallmarks of Jesus’ character (Phil 2:5-8). “Submission” is motivated by love – Jesus submitted to the Father’s will because of love. The more He submitted to God’s will, the more joy it brought Him because He was pleasing the one He loved – this is the model of all human relationships (Eph 5:21). When a person submits and serves from a basis of love, that person is free from self-interest, and joy results. Jesus’ humble submission led Him to “obedience” – Jesus never thought of obedience as just a sterile act of courage; rather it was His heart responding to His Father in love. The natural result of humility, submission, and obedience is “sacrifice” – Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was the greatest act of selfless giving in all God’s creation. Just as Jesus bore our sins, we are now free to do the same for others. The goal of Christian disciples is that they take on the character of Christ. (75-90)
Is character transformation more BEING than DOING? more INTERNAL than EXTERNAL? There are a number of proponents on both sides of this issue – the truth of the matter is, God works both inside out and outside in. The classic position is that people “change on the inside” and that change works itself out in the world. Solomon states a very ordinary manifestation of the relationship between internal and external: “A glad heart makes a happy face; a broken heart crushes the spirit” (Prv 15:13). Dallas Willard is a proponent of this view. He writes, “Spiritual formation is formation of the inner being of the human [soul] resulting in transformation of the whole person. . . [but] spiritual formation is never merely inward.” So God works inside out through prayer, Bible reading, and the practice of spiritual exercises. The question remains: Does action that is against one’s natural desire create a new or different spirit in a person? Consider the following – let’s say you have a strong dislike for someone. . . as a disciple of Christ, you know you are to love even your enemies. . . so how will you treat this person? Is it not true that an “act of loving obedience” will also work a change in your own heart? And isn’t this what Jesus meant when He taught us to “love our enemies”? Compulsory kindness is not only likely to produce a “change” in the heart of the recipient, but also create something positive in the server’s inner life as well – both people are changed. When a person acts like God would act, it shapes that person’s attitude as well as his heart. When the intention of the action is to serve others as a “little Christ,” the reward is a trans-formed spirit. Conversely, if we repeatedly act kind, even when we are not feeling kind, we begin to be kind – the external action will change the internal disposition. God rewards kind acts in His children through the law of reaping – we reap what we sow – actions become habits that become character.
The Bible says transformation begins in the “mind” ( Rom 12:2) – loving acts of kindness first begins in the mind and the heart. The transforming work of the Spirit starts with God’s Word acting upon our hearts and minds (Jn 14:26; 16:13); the Word of God is necessary to our spiritual formation because it uses the vehicle of language to make God’s thoughts our thoughts. “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. . . discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). God does transforming spiritual surgery in our hearts by His Word through the agency of His Spirit. True thoughts find their way into the disciple’s mind through the reading of the Word and prayerful reflection. God uses both internal and external stimulus to change us into the image of His Son. Writes Hull: “My memory comes alive when I recall a close friend slipping a five-dollar bill into my hand years ago when my wife and I had nothing for groceries.” Spiritual formation begins within – a mind thinking God’s thoughts, fueled by a Holy Spirit - birthed desire, creates new actions, which become habits, and habits are what make our character. (91-108)
So what kind of “relationship” is God inviting us to have with Him? Jesus claimed to be “friends” with His disciples (Jn 15:15). Obviously friendship with God is different than friendship with humans – He is preeminently holy and separate from all others; as such He is to be revered and feared. Since He is not like us, it makes sense that our relationship with Him would be different than one with our fellow man. As human beings, we feel most comfortable and secure around those friends who accept us for who we are – when that’s the case, we don’t feel as if we have to hide anything or pretend to be different than we are; we trust these friends and feel comfortable around them; we like being with them; that is friendship at its best. Writes Hull: “I want to become the kind of friend to Jesus that He [genuinely] enjoys being around, someone who is not always asking for something. And I would like to get to the point where I can be with God and not think He’s trying to fix me, because such thoughts either make me avoid Him or keep me on guard when I am with Him.”
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THE CALL TO CHRISTLIKENESS
John Stott in his book “The Radical Disciple,” asks the question: “What is God’s purpose for His people?” The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” There is also the scriptural dictum, “We are to love God and love others.” And the idea that “God wants us to be like Christ.” It is this last one that Stott finds the most satisfactory. The biblical basis for the call to Christlikeness is found is three texts —
- Romans 8:29 – God has “predestined His people to be conformed to the image of His Son.” God’s eternal pre-destination occurred in eternity past; thus, this is the historical “past” tense.”
- 2 Corinth 3:18 – As Christians, “we are all [in the process of] being transformed into the image of Christ.” This is the present ongoing transformation of our lives by the Holy Spirit – the “present” tense.
- 1 John 3:2 – John writes, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not yet appeared what we shall be; for when He (Christ) appears, we shall be like Him.” This is the “future” tense. (Stott, pp. 29-31)
Stott goes on to say that one of the reasons our “evangelistic efforts” are so often fraught with failure is that “we don’t look like the Christ we proclaim.” John Poulton in his book “A Today Sort of Evangelism” writes:
The most effective preaching comes from those who embody the things they are saying. They are their message. . . they need to look like what they are talking about. It is people who communicate primarily, not words. . . . what communicates [best] is personal authenticity.
A Hindu professor once commented to one of his Christian students: “If you Christians lived like Jesus Christ, India would be at your feet tomorrow.” It should be remembered that Mahatma Ghandi, the twentieth century Hindu holy man (guru) of India, was known to have loved the teachings of Jesus more than any other ancient writings; those were the moral teachings he tried most to emulate. Another example is that of Reverend Iskandar Jadeed, a former Arab Muslim, who said: “If all Christians were Christians [in the biblical sense] there would be no more Islam today.” Those are some pretty profound statements to those of us who profess to be followers of Christ. The big question for us is this – Is it possible for us as Christians to live Christlike lives? Obviously, in our own strength it is not, but God has given us His Holy Spirit to enable us to fulfill His purpose. God’s purpose is to make us like Christ, and God’s way is to fill us with His Holy Spirit. (Stott, pp. 35-37)
Stott summarized the Christian scene in the world today as “growth without depth” – “There is superficiality of discipleship everywhere,” he writes. The leadership of the rapidly growing African church states, “It is growth without a strong biblical foundation.” Likewise, the leadership of the fast growing Asian church says, “It lacks godliness and integrity.” The New Testament apostles rebuked their readers for their “immaturity” and urged them to “grow up.” Writes Paul: “I gave you milk, not solid food, because you were not yet ready for it” (1 Cor 3:1-3). In another passage he says, “We proclaim Christ, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present every believer fully mature [teleious] in Christ; it is to this end that I strenuously labor” (Col 1:28-29).
What is maturity? To be mature is to have a mature relationship with Christ in which we worship, trust, love, and obey Him. J. I. Packer in his book “Knowing God” says that we are “pygmy Christians” because we have a “pygmy God;” that is, a distorted Christ. So if we want to develop true Christian maturity, we need above all a fresh and true vision of Jesus Christ. Jerome, one of the early Church fathers, wrote that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Equally, we can say that knowledge of Scripture is knowledge of Christ. Nothing is more important for mature Christian discipleship than a fresh, clear, true vision of the authentic Jesus. Writes Stott: “The discipleship principle is clear – the poorer our vision of Christ, the poorer our discipleship will be; whereas the richer our vision of Christ, the richer our discipleship will be.” Maturity in Christ must be the goal for ourselves as well as our ministry to others. (Stott, pp. 38-48)
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We can’t be a friend of God’s if we are always disagreeing with Him about the way He does things. That’s the lesson we learn from Job. It is worth noting that God allowed Job to complain; He listened to every word of Job’s lament – even when Job cursed the day he was born. But look at where Job arrived after spewing out the pain that was deep within him – “I am vile; I repent in ashes; I have said too much; I will say no more” (Job 40:1-5). All the anger, all the pain, all the confusion, all the sense of betrayal – Job spit it all up; there was nothing left inside to get out. His final response was a matter of logic – Job realized who God was and who he was, and that settled the matter. We need to do the same. Unless we accept God for who He is, then we will begin to avoid Him altogether. Bill Hull puts it something like this: “There is one image that helps me relax around God – I imagine that I am having dinner with God and a number of other close friends. . . all of us feel accepted. . . we are all laughing and cracking jokes, and Jesus is enjoying the moment as much as we are. . . I can tell by the look on His face that He really likes being with us, that He really accepts us, and that He is thrilled that we are becoming more and more like Him. . . all of us feel affirmed – even in our weaknesses.”
In order to enjoy such a relationship, you need to abandon your “stiff, legalistic approach” to prayer and Bible reading. Take your relationship with God and run! Run from the moralists who tell you that the more time you log with God, the more accepted and spiritual you are. . . run from those who tell you that you are only heard by God when tears are found upon the pages of your Bible. . . run from those who champion a rigid monasticism that uses self-denial as a means of making you feel better about yourself. . . and run from those who propose that you are free from any responsibility or discipline in connection to knowing God. Leave both extremes behind, and find the healthy place modeled so beautifully by Christ Himself. Karl Barth is reported to have said, “I have read many books, but the Bible reads me.” When we learn to read the Bible reflectively – to read it, to obey it, to confess, to apply it to our life – the revolution will begin. The very center of spiritual transformation is “being with God” – spiritual transformation is about reconciliation and closing the distance. In eternity, the distance fully disappears. This life has much more promise than what most disciples experience. We have the prospect of being God’s friend and of developing the friendship by reflecting on His Word and learning to hear His voice. Living close to God is what He created us for – that is what abundant living is all about. (109-122)
When you sit down in the morning for your time in the Word with God, picture yourself as entering into an “inter-active relationship” with someone who really loves you and wants to share His heart with you – expect to be spoken to, and when His Word enters your heart you will “taste it!” The prophet Jeremiah expressed it this way: “Thy words were found and I ate them, and they became for me the joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer 15:16). Likewise, the apostle John said, “I went to the angel and told him to give me the small scroll, and he said to me, ‘take and eat it’ – it will be sweet as honey in your mouth, but it will turn sour in your stomach!” (Rev 10:9). John ate the book – it metabolized in him. It made him feel… it made him happy… it made him sad… it gave him pleasure… and at times it even made him sick to his stomach. It has the same effect on us today. The word of God is food – it is to be taken in, tasted, chewed, savored, swallowed, and digested. The psalmist David said, “How blessed is the man who delights in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Ps 1:2; cf. Ps 63:6). The word “meditate” in Hebrew is the same word that is used of the cow “chewing his cud.” Cows actually have four stomachs – each serving a different purpose – when he is out grazing in the field, he initially swallows the food into his upper stomach that holds about 50 gallons of partially digested food; later on “he brings the food back up again to chew on” – this is what it means for a cow to chew his cud. As believers we need to “bring God’s Word up again for reconsideration” – to prayerfully reflect upon… to taste it… to be encouraged by it… to feed our souls on it… to be renewed by it… to be satisfied by it. This would not be possible, however, if we were negligent in getting into the Word in the first place.
Millions of believers read the Bible every day, but getting the Scriptures into their lives and hearts is another issue entirely. Eugene Peterson put it this way: “The challenge regarding the Christian Scriptures is getting them read as God’s revelation. . . what is neglected is reading them formatively in order to live” – that is, reading the Scriptures in a way that changes you, that impacts the way you live. The Bible is a book that requires some intellect and study to grasp, but it is also food for the soul (Heb 5:11-14; 1 Pet 2:2). One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to guide and teach us what God’s Word means (Jn 14: 26; 16:13)… but how will He do that if we neglect spending time in it? One of the largest churches in America – Willow Creek Community Church, in Barrington, Illinois – commissioned a study of their church along with hundreds of other churches a few years ago: they discovered that not much has changed in 2,000 years. Of the 80,000 people surveyed, 87% said that understanding the Bible was their first priority. But the finding was even more specific – those who had reached maturity said that reading the Scriptures in a reflective manner was the main reason they had grown.
Sadly, reading Scripture “reflectively” is uncommon among most evangelicals. The emphasis has been on reading and studying for understanding and knowing the Bible. As a result, the Scriptures get into our heads, but not our hearts. That is why there has been a stampede of interest lately in the spiritual disciplines. Saint Bonaventure expresses it well: “To know much and taste nothing – of what use is that?” One of the monastics’ finer contributions was “reflective reading” and “meditation” on Scripture – they developed a time-tested method called lectio divina, or divine reading. It contains the following four movements:
1. Lectio – First, select a short passage, and then with a listening heart, slowly and deliberately read the text aloud. When you find a phrase that speaks to your heart, pause in your reading.
2. Meditatio – Second, meditate or reflect upon the words. Think about them. What do they mean? What does the passage say? Allow God to settle the truth of His word into your soul. Allow it to probe your attitude, emotions, and aspirations.
3. Oratio – Third, return the passage you have just read to the Father by praising Him for its work in you. Talk to the Father about your reading. Pray the words, interact with God, and ask the Holy Spirit to teach you the special applications for your life.
4. Contemplatio – The final stage is resting in the Lord’s presence. Thisistheactofsimplybeing with God. Review your immediate life, attitudes, and conflicts. Nowlivewhatyouhaveread.
One of the benefits of thinking about “developing good habits” is to remember the practices of the ancient church. What the Reformation took away from many of our traditions is the unity of the seven major practices of the church – the first was communion, the second tithing, and the third was fasting. These have largely survived the divide between Protestant and Catholic. The next four major practices mainly have been lost. The fourth had to do with the hours of the day that the church would pray – according to Jewish tradition, they would pray six times a day: prayer would be at six, nine, noon, three, six, and at retiring. This was also the practice of the early church – though they would only stop and pray for minute or two, they did faithfully pray. It is easy to understand the importance of com-municating with God throughout the course of the day. The fifth practice was the Sabbath – a time of worship, rest and reflection; were you thinking “relaxation”? The sixth was the church year or church calendar, which would condition a person to experience the steps of redemption, incarnation, preparation for the passion of Christ, His death, His resurrection, His ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The last ancient practice was pilgrimage, where once in a lifetime a Christian would go to a special place to pay homage and for reflection. It didn’t need to be a Holy Land tour – it could have been their family home, the place they met Christ, or significant friends who have contributed to their spiritual life. There is power in structure and tradition – by appreciating them, these things assist us in knowing God better and in knowing Him more personally.
Jesus posited Himself as the “Good Shepherd.” There are a number of qualities He attributed to His relationship with His flock – His sheep recognize His voice. . . He calls his sheep by name and leads them out. . . His sheep don’t follow a stranger because they don’t know his voice. . . His sheep listen to His voice (Jn 10:3-5, 14, 16). Four times in this passage Jesus claims that His people know His voice and follow Him. How can we know if God is speaking to us? Most of us don’t have any trouble knowing if God is speak-ing to us from Scripture. . . but what about at other times? Entire books have been written on the subject of hearing God’s voice – one of the best is Dallas Willard’s Hearing God. Most people who are sensi- tive to what God has to say to them, consider His voice an “inner voice” – a prompting, an impression, an inner urge that simply won’t go away. Remember, “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). F. B. Meyer said the following about God’s speaking to us: “God’s impressions within and His word without are always corroborated by His providence around, and we should quietly wait until those three focus into one point. If you do not know what you ought to do, stand still until you do. My mentor in ministry used to say, “When in doubt, don’t!” When the time comes for action, circumstances, like glowworms, will sparkle along your path. You will become sure you are right when God’s three witnesses concur.” C. S. Lewis said he found the exercise of setting aside time just to hear from God very frustrating, even though he did subject himself to it on a semi-regular basis. Lewis found “walking tours” much more conducive to being with God than the “sitting still and trying to shut everything out” routine. For me personally, I have also found walking tours much more helpful and beneficial when I need to hear from God – I can spend hours every day in study, but when there is “angst” in my soul, I need to get out and “take a walk with God” – just the two of us – where we can interact together. Others I know find “sitting still” more helpful. Both of these are viable options. (123-144)
Most people innately believe the healthiest form of spirituality is to have a “heart to please God,” and from that heart of passion to respond to Him in obedience. The ancients believed action followed essence, that our actions are consistent with the reality of our hearts. The flip side, however, is the fear that if we depend on feelings, passions, and emotions, we will sin, giving in to the powerful self-interest deep within our hearts. . . and as Reinhold Neburhr states, “Sin is the precise sense of self-centeredness and the struggle for power.” Hence, there is great danger in depending too much on passion or desire. The “heart” is the innermost center of man – it encompasses the will, the mind, and the spirit, and it can see, feel, know, reflect, and be turned toward or away from God. Spiritual formation is the development of a “heart for God” – the spiritual heart directs the transformation of the entire person to reflect Jesus Christ; it denotes a passion and warmth of relationship, in which there is an honest interchange including disappointment, disagreement, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
A regenerate heart desires to be at one with God and please Him (Eph 1:17-18). In 1928, William Law published the popular book, A Serious call to a Devout and Holy Life; it was a powerful influence on a number of spiritual giants including Samuel Johnson and John Wesley. In it he asks why is it that so many professing Christians live contrary to the principles that they say they believe. He responds by saying that believers are in constant negotiation with God about who is in charge – but a holy and devout life calls for surrender, not negotiation. Thus, we must go into training in order to gradually grow out of the grip of our own corrupted hearts and strengthen our spiritual hearts (1 Cor 9:24-27). The facts are, we can have a new heart (one that God has put in us) and a deceptive heart at the same time (Jer 17:9). Richard Foster describes our inner person this way: “We are, each and every one of us, a tangled mass of motives: hope & fear… faith & doubt… simplicity & duplicity… honesty & falsity… openness & guile… and God is the only one who can separate the true from the false, the only one who can purify the motives of the heart.”
Can a person’s intention genuinely be changed? The answer is an unequivocal “yes,” or there is no sense in continuing this discussion. Paul prayed that “the eyes of our heart be enlightened” (Eph 1:18); that the heart would see more the way God sees. As we experience the good and the bad of life, we start seeing life more like God sees it. It is surprising how this change takes place. It is what we call the common, or ordinary life. When we sincerely desire to please God in all our actions, we allow Him to dig down deep inside us and to get at the deepest why reasons we do what we do (Ps 139:23-24). If we really believe that pleasing God is what will make us happiest, and that we won’t miss anything when we abstain from sin – the spiritual heart must believe this – then we will win over lust and lying and every other vice, because we will know that we aren’t missing a thing when we refuse to engage in sinful behavior. The problem for most believers is that they really don’t believe, in the moment, that they will be happiest by refraining from sin – hence, they capitulate.
Heart work is “hard work,” because making ourselves available to God requires “discipline.” Paul told Timothy, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim 4:7). By discipline, Paul meant the will and structure needed for repeated exercise – this is evident by his mention in the next verse about bodily exercise. This discipline comes from two sources – the Holy Spirit and fellow members of the body of Christ who join with us on the journey. Lone-ranger believers don’t make it, because that is not the way God designed the process – and to fight His wisdom, is to lose the battle! So, don’t stubbornly persist on redesigning the process! If you submit to the process as we have previously discussed, God will begin to “change your heart.” There is great mystery in all this – just submit your spirit and start asking God to, “Change my heart, shape my spirit, do Your work.” King David was reported to be a man after God’s own heart. . . though he was a flawed man like all of us (he had a sin disposition just like you and me), he still had a strong heart and passion for God. David sincerely desired to please God, in spite of his human frailties and shortcomings. (145-154)
Is “obedience” to God ever easy? Some believe so. Easy behavior comes as a result of a transformed nature – it is the product of the ancient practices called the “spiritual disciplines.” Here is the way Bill Hull puts it: “Part of me will never stop wanting the doughnut, but given enough time and training, a better part of me will cause me to desire the better thing, the carrot (see Gal 5:16-17). The difference would be that I might taste the Lord and His ways and find them more delicious than anything else in life” (Ps 34:8). Hull concludes, “If the Lord can’t taste better than a carrot, then I have a problem, because carrots don’t have a chance against doughnuts!” Dallas Willard advocates that through spiritual exercise, we can become the kind of people who are far more inclined to do the things Jesus did – though this is only possible when we develop “relational closeness” to God. Relational closeness comes from investing time in submission to the practices that nurture the relationship – being with God, spending time in His Word, and hearing His voice. To the degree that you enter into the spiritual exercises – to that degree will you experience the power and joy of a transformed life. It is the old law of “reaping what you sow” (Lk 6:38; 2 Cor 9:6; Gal 6:7). If you invest little, you will reap little. . . if you plant soybeans, you will reap soybeans – you do the math. Jesus taught us that when we “love someone,” we desire to please and do things that benefit the one we love, even when we don’t naturally want to do those things (Mt 26:39; Jn 14:15). “God loved us so much that He gave His one and only Son. . . that we might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
No one is transformed by “wishing” it could happen – it is a “choice.” It takes place only when a disciple engages in a sustained effort with the spiritual disciplines. If you think “soul transformation” (sanctification) is solely the work of the Holy Spirit – that God does it all – you are confused about the nature of grace. Our salvation (justification) is the work of God alone, but our sanctification requires the believer’s participation – in that sense, it is a “co-operative;” both the believer and the Holy Spirit are involved (Phil 2:12-13). Grace is what we call the act of God whereby He captures our hearts, implants new life in us, and gives us the desire to serve Him, and through the Holy Spirit, the power to do it. Grace is not opposed to effort – but it is opposed to earning. God’s grace is a gift and is not for sale or given to the hardest worker. However, grace endows one with the power and resources to give a full effort (Eph 2:8-10). Paul worked hard; he struggled, but it was with God’s power that he did so. That is the divine dance we do every day – we join hands with Jesus… He leads and we follow. When we choose to take action, employing the tools God has given us, we are demonstrating our desire to please God – these tools are commonly known as spiritual disciplines; their usefulness in forming Christ in us is essential. For the record, the spiritual disciplines are normally understood to be the following – reading Scripture, studying it, believing it (affirming the truth of it – that’s faith), meditating on it, memorizing it, prayer, solitude, worship, evangelism, service, stewardship, fasting, submission, and frugality. These disciplines are the exercises of Christian training that enable us to experience God’s presence in our lives and hear His voice. They are to the Christian what physical training is to the long-distance runner. The spiritual heart can be trained by employing these God-given disciplines – we start with the desire to be like Christ, and through sustained effort and God’s power (grace), we become more Christlike. Here is the formula: “Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Cor 3:6). Paul and Apollos worked hard, but GOD was the one who brought forth the fruit (the increase). You may work diligently in your garden, but you are not the one who causes the plants to grow – God does – yet without you doing your part, there will be no plant growth. You think about that.
Jesus also practiced these disciplines. So evangelical critics who claim that spiritual disciplines are simply the product of medieval monasticism – that they are Catholic in origin – are simply misinformed. What the critics miss is that the disciplines were embedded in Jesus’ life – He prayed alone, fasted, spent extended time alone, and lived a life of frugality. Furthermore, His life was a model of service, submis-sion, sacrifice, and evangelism. Thus, we do these things because Jesus Himself did them. The objective for practicing the spiritual disciplines is to have Christ formed in us. If we choose to practice them, they then become a habit, which affects our character, and the result is a spiritually transformed heart.
Sadly, many churches in the West have reduced the Christian faith to “intellectual agreement” that is divorced from “action,” and that kind of faith, says James, “in useless” (Jam 2:20). Only the continued practice of the spiritual disciplines in community eventually transform the heart – one of the joys of life together in Christ is that of helping one another keep our commitments to God; and only humble people will submit themselves to others and allow their character to be developed in community. God created His people to “live in community” with other believers (Acts 2:42; Heb 3:13; 10:24-25); in so doing, those who “jointly practice the spiritual disciplines” discover their hearts being transformed. The life of transformation takes time – training is a process, it is the spiritual equivalent of the athlete who is in training to win a marathon – as such, it leaves plenty of room for patience. Believers on the road to maturity understand that the spiritual life is a long journey – thus they take the long view. (155-170)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood how much Christians “need each other.” He writes, “The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him – in particular when he becomes discouraged and uncertain” (Ecc 4:9, 11, 12; Jn 13:34; Rom 14:19; Gal 5:13; Col 3:16; 1 Th 5:11; Heb 10:24; Jam 5:16; 1 Pet 4:10; 1 Jn 4:7), for such is the common plight of us all – none of us is without the need and support of a brother. There may be much to commend itself for staying away from church people – obviously they have their foibles like everyone else – but despite the many reasons for staying away from the body. . . we need it. . . though some within it may be difficult to live with. . . we cannot live without it. What we have described here is simply structure and accountability clothed in love and relationships – that is the way God designed His Church. By the way, you cannot program “transformation” – it is too organic to be organized! Let me say it again, “Soul transformation is impossible for the lone-ranger believer,” so get into a good Bible-believing church, and connect with other brothers and sisters in Christ who need you as much as you need them (1 Cor 12:12ff). Obviously, the Christian life is a tougher obstacle course than any of us would have designed, but we were not the ones who were assigned to the design team. . . keep in mind, you are not the Creator, you are the creature. . . God has placed us on planet earth to be “little Christs” to sinners just like ourselves – and in order to be as effective as possible in that assignment, we need to submit ourselves to the discipline and training that God has outlined for us – He asks us to cooperate with Him throughout the process, and in doing so, He has promised to transform us into the image of His beloved Son (Rom 8:29). Seems impossible, doesn’t it? I fully understand why you might feel that way – we are all made of the same stuff – and if it were only left up to us, obviously it would not happen. The good news with regard to our transformation is this: “God is also at work in us to will and to do His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13) – so what is not remotely possible for you and me, is imminently possible for God (Mt 19:26).
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THE CALL TO SIMPLICITY
John Stott in his book “The Radical Disciple,” writes about an international consultation on “Simple Lifestyle” he attended in England in 1980. It affirmed that “Life” & “Lifestyle” belong together – since the life we have as believers is new, the lifestyle we have should also be new. The Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism in 1974 ultimately concluded: “Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple lifestyle in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.” The Congress was convened to listen to the voice of God, through Scripture and the cries of the hungry poor – in so doing, they became more mindful of the unevangelized, the oppressed and the suffering in the world, and, regrettably, the Church’s complicity in it. As such, they were stirred to fresh resolves which they expressed in a commitment to “develop a more simple lifestyle.” The commitment involved:
- Creation – In His generosity God has given us everything to enjoy and we receive it from His hands with humble thanksgiving (1 Tim 6:17). His creation is marked by rich abundance and diversity and He intends its resources to be husbanded and shared for the benefit of all. Therefore we denounce environmental destruction, wastefulness and hoarding, and we deplore the misery of the poor who suffer as a result of these evils.
- Stewardship – When God made man, He made him in His own image and gave him dominion over the earth (Gen 1:26-28). He made him a steward (not a proprietor) of its resources; as such, he became responsible to God as Creator, to the earth which he was to develop, and to his fellow man with whom he was to share its riches.
- Poverty and Wealth – We affirm that involuntary poverty is an offense against the goodness of God. God’s call to rulers is that they use their power to defend the poor, not exploit them. We must remember the words of Jesus about wealth: “Beware of coveteousness – a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk 12:15). We are to “be rich in good works, generous and ready to share” (1 Tim 6:18). Jesus Christ Himself, “though He was rich, He became poor that through His poverty we might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9) – it was costly and sacrificial.
- The New Community – The early Church loved one another to such an extent that they voluntarily sold and shared their possessions to meet the needs of others – “none of them said that anything he had was his own” (Acts 4:32). Though some private property was retained, they were free from the selfish assertion of proprietary rights (Acts 5:4). As a result, “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). Christ calls us to be the world’s salt and light, in order to illumine its darkness and hinder its social decay; it is only then that we truly affect the world for Christ.
- Personal Lifestyle – Jesus summons us to holiness, humility, simplicity and contentment. We lay down no rules or regulations for ourselves or others, yet we resolve to renounce waste and oppose extravagance in personal living. We also accept the distinction between necessities & luxuries, modesty & vanity, service to God & slavery to fashion.
- International Development – One quarter of the world’s population enjoys unparalleled prosperity, while another quarter endures grinding poverty. This gross disparity is an intolerable injustice, and we refuse to acquiesce to it.
- Justice and Politics – The Christian community, along with the rest of society, is inevitably involved in politics which is “the art of living in community.” As servants of Christ we must express His lordship in our moral, political, social, and economic commitments, and our love for our neighbors by taking part in the political process.
- Evangelism – The credibility of our message is seriously diminished and compromised whenever we contradict it by our lives. It is impossible with integrity to proclaim Christ’s salvation if He has evidently not saved us from greed, or His lordship if we are not good stewards of our possessions, or His love if we close our hearts against the needy.
- The Lord’s Return – The Old Testament prophets denounced the idolatry and injustice of God’s people and warned them of His coming judgment. Those who have ministered to Him by ministering to one of the least of His children will be saved – saving faith is exhibited in serving love (Mt 25:31-46; Lk 10:25-37; Eph 2:10; Phil 2:4; Tit 2:8; 3:8, 14; Jam 1:27; 2:14-18; 1 Jn 3:16-18; 4:7-8). (Stott, pp. 60-82)
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The “local church” is the most significant organized influence for spiritual growth, so the activities of the church naturally emerge as important catalytic factors. Therefore the best advice for Christians is that they “go to church” – and once they are there, latch on to those who are doing the spiritual practices. This point is absolutely critical for the believer who wants to grow in Christ – spending time with fellow followers of Christ who are of kindred spirit is vital to spiritual growth. By the way, over a lifetime, you will need several different kinds of people to walk with you – there are different seasons, different challenges – but they are all to be found among fellow Christ followers.
The “spiritual exercises” that make up this training are – reading, studying, memorizing, meditating, and praying through the Scriptures; periodically getting alone with God for times of solitude and reflec-tion; loosening your grip on your selfishness through giving, serving, frugality, and fasting; and exercis-ing your spiritual gifts in the service of others – such as mercy, helps, teaching, exhorting, and so on. In the best of churches, the pastor teaches the value of discipleship and spiritual exercise. Then the group life of the church is organized around these practices so that people can grow together in Christlikeness. People cannot become Christlike without accountability, and they cannot have accountability without structure, but that structure can be as simple as, “We will meet every Tuesday morning at eight and discuss chapter 8 of our book on the spiritual disciplines” (or whatever). In order to flourish, people need to be part of a community that has the qualities of trust, grace, humility, submission, and affirmation. These essential elements create community – their polar opposites (suspicion, criticism, pride, self-will, and competition) destroy community. Let’s look at each one of these qualities in more detail –
- Trust – This is the most important requirement for spiritual development; finding at least one person in your community that you can trust. Trust is based on integrity – you can trust a person who has proven to be reliable and honest. It is only when you find someone you can trust, that you can be vulnerable with that person, and allow yourself to come under that person’s influence. Choose the person carefully because his or her character will help shape yours. If you can’t find such a person, pray fervently until you do! God will be faithful in giving you such a person.
- Grace – In order to grow in Christlikeness, you will also need to be part of a community that offers you grace, particularly when you stumble and fall. To offer grace means treating others better than they deserve to be treated. It means looking past peoples faults, and offering people a place where they feel safe, affirmed, and able to risk – without an environment of grace, people will be reluctant to open up and be transparent.
- Humility – A community that will foster spiritual growth is one that will teach you how to humbly receive life as it comes hurling at you. Humility is simply the acknowledgement of who you are dependent on. When your answer is Christ, then you will have humility. Peter exhorts us to, “Humble yourselves under God’s mighty hand, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (1 Pet 5:6). Without humility, there is no submission… without submission, there are no relationships of trust… without relationships of trust, you won’t make yourself vulnerable… without being vulnerable, no one can influence you… and without the influence of others, you won’t change.
- Submission – Submission is a love word. We submit to others because we desire to enter into a relationship that benefits us and those around us. When we practice submission in community, three things happen: 1) our needs get met; 2) we get to practice humility, the character trait that allows us to submit; and 3) we allow others to love us. This makes us growing disciples who then influence others with our Christlikeness. Nothing could be more radical or counter-cultural than Christians who submit to other people’s needs. This is a key place where churches and ministries should invest their energy.
- Affirmation – We all need affirmation – it confirms our identities. It lets us know that others appreciate our strengths and contributions, and this helps us risk coming out of our shells. Affirma tion is powerful – it creates an environment that gives people permission to drop their defenses, and that allows deep change to take place. Affirmation becomes a way of life in an environment of grace. It reminds people that God values them. (171-188)
Jesus taught that what comes out of the heart reveals the “content of the heart” (Lk 6:43-45). By the way, what is in people always comes out. . . what is inside their hearts cannot remain hidden, because that is the essence of who the person is – the simple fact is, we cannot be who we are not (Mt 7:16-18; Jam 3:12) – the heart is reflected in the way people behave. Disciples who are truly alive in Christ are like a “match” – they will start a fire. Jesus said believers are “the light of the world – they are like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden;” as such, they are to “let their light shine for everyone to see” (Mt 5:14-16). True faith begins within us, in the privacy of the heart, but it cannot remain there – it must be displayed. Faith that springs from inside us shines – it talks, it walks, it interacts, it loves, it cares – it is God’s active presence in the world. The mark of the Christian society is love (Jn 13:35) – it is disciples giving themselves to others, regardless of the cost. The key to changing the world is a vibrant transformation on the inside that focuses on a person at one with Christ.
Dallas Willard states, “Widespread transformation of character through wisely disciplined discipleship to Christ can transform our world; it can disarm the structured evils that have always dominated humankind and now threaten to destroy the world.” The process of transformation is not a short-term experience – it lasts our entire lives – and it is not a passive life, but one of sustained effort. It will require tools, structure, and discipline. Most of all, it means living in community with others, because in order for transformation into the image of Christ to have meaning, we must seek to serve and love others. . . and in order to make a difference – we need to be different. (189-195)