Spirituality


Greg Laurie hits a homerun in his latest blogpost, Thank God for Unanswered Prayer.

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I’ve begun taking some of the guys in the fellowship through R. Kent Hughe’s book, Disciplines of a Godly Man.  The introduction has a section giving examples from the world of man regarding the indispensible role of discipline in reaching one’s human potential in merely temporal things – and connects the dots regarding the absolute necessity of it in spiritual things.

Those who have watched Mike Singletary (perennial All-Pro, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and member of the Super Bowl XXV Dream Team) “play” — and have observed his wide-eyed intensity and his churning, crunching samurai hits — are usually surprised when they meet him. He is not an imposing hulk. He is barely six feet tall and weighs, maybe, 220. Whence the greatness? Discipline. Mike Singletary is as disciplined a student of the game as any who have ever played it. In his biography, Calling the Shots, he says that in watching game films he will often run a single play fifty to sixty times, and that it takes him three hours to watch half a football game, which is only twenty to thirty plays! Because he watches every player, because he mentally knows the opposition’s tendency — given the down, distance, hashmark, and time remaining, because he reads the opposition’s mind through their stances, he is often moving toward the ball’s preplanned destination before the play develops. Mike Singletary’s legendary success is testimony to his remarkably disciplined life.

We are accustomed to thinking of Ernest Hemingway as a boozy, undisciplined genius who got through a quart of whiskey a day for the last twenty years of his life but nevertheless had the muse upon him. He was indeed an alcoholic driven by complex passions. But when it came to writing, he was the quintessence of discipline! His early writing was characterized by obsessive literary perfectionism as he labored to develop his economy of style, spending hours polishing a sentence, or searching for the mot juste—the right word. It is  a well-known fact that he rewrote the conclusion to his novel A Farewell to Arms seventeen times in an effort to get it right. This is characteristic of great writers. Dylan Thomas made over two hundred handwritten(!) manuscript versions of his poem “Fern Hill.” Even toward the end, when Hemingway was reaping the ravages of his lifestyle, while writing at his Finca Vigia in Cuba he daily stood before an improvised desk in oversized loafers on yellow tiles from 6:30 a.m. until noon every day, carefully marking his production for the day on a chart. His average was only two pages — five hundred words. It was discipline, Ernest Hemingway’s massive literary discipline, which transformed the way his fellow Americans, and people throughout the English-speaking world, expressed themselves.

Michelangelo’s, da Vinci’s, and Tintoretto’s multitudes of sketches, the quantitative discipline of their work, prepared the way for the cosmic quality of their work. We wonder at the anatomical perfection of a da Vinci painting. But we forget that Leonardo da Vinci on one occasion drew a thousand hands. In the last century Matisse explained his own mastery, remarking that the difficulty with many who wanted to be artists is that they spend their time chasing models rather than painting them.6 Again the discipline factor!

In our own time Winston Churchill has been rightly proclaimed the speaker of the century, and few who have heard his eloquent speeches would disagree. Still fewer would suspect he was anything but a “natural.” But the truth is, Churchill had a distracting lisp which made him the butt of many jokes and resulted in his inability to be spontaneous in public speaking. Yet he became famous for his speeches and his seemingly impromptu remarks.

Actually, Churchill wrote everything out and practiced it! He even choreographed the pauses and pretended fumblings for the right phrase. The margins of his manuscripts carried notes anticipating the “cheers,” “hear, hears,” “prolonged cheering,” and even “standing ovation.” This done, he practiced endlessly in front of mirrors, fashioning his retorts and facial expressions. F. E. Smith said, “Winston has spent the best years of his life writing impromptu speeches.” A natural? Perhaps. A naturally disciplined hard-working man!

And so it goes, whatever the area of life.

Thomas Edison came up with the incandescent light after a thousand failures.

Jascha Heifitz, the greatest violinist of this century, began playing the violin at the age of three and early began to practice four hours a day until his death at age seventy-five — when he had long been the greatest in the world — some 102,000 hours of practice. He no doubt gave his own “Hear, hear!” to Paderewski’s response to a woman’s fawning remarks about his genius: “Madame, before I was a genius, I was a drudge.”

We will never get anywhere in life without discipline, be it in the arts, business, athletics, or academics. This is doubly so in spiritual matters. In other areas we may be able to claim some innate advantage. An athlete may be born with a strong body, a musician with perfect pitch, or an artist with an eye for perspective. But none of us can claim an innate spiritual advantage. In reality, we are all equally disadvantaged. None of us naturally seeks after God, none is inherently righteous, none instinctively does good (cf. Romans 3:9–18). Therefore, as children of grace, our spiritual discipline is everything — everything!

I repeat … discipline is everything!

There seems to be a creeping, pervading problem in American Christianity which infects many if not most sectors of the church, and which proves, in my opinion, to be very problematic.

On the one hand, you have an attitude of defeatism, where believers are fixated on their present struggles, despairing of their frailties, and overall hamstrung in their spiritual lives by an over realization of their persistent sinfulness.  These poor saints really do love the Lord, really do want to live lives pleasing to Him, really do want to see Him lifted high…but feel very deeply and very powerfully that they are completely disqualified from ever seeing Him glorified in their lives, convinced that He’s only tolerating them because He promised to take “whomsoever will,” and that if He would have thought that one through a bit more before saying it, He would have added the proviso, “except for that guy.  I mean, come on…just look at him.  Can you believe he calls himself a Christian?  Hey, Mike, Gabe…I’m a bit busy over here in the galactic core taking care of Sagittarius A* – can you just reach down and zap him for Me real quick in retaliation for his even trying to ask Me into his life, eh?  Thanks, guys.”

The Christian life for these poor saints is not a joy, it is a misery.  True, it’s less a misery than knowing for sure that they’re lost, still dead in their sins back in the world; but it’s a drudgery nonetheless because they are never sure that God has really forgiven them, that He’s really accepted them, and that He really delights in them.  They get it that the way of the transgressor is hard, but that’s the entire problem for them – because they are painfully aware of their own persistent sinfulness, they never really draw into God, never really experience the peace of God, and so when hard things inevitably come into their lives, they become increasingly convinced that this is simply further proof that they may just in fact still be reprobate, may in fact not truly be saved – that they may in fact still be transgressors in the essential sense.  All of which leads to spiritual melancholy – and outright depression.

These poor saints are trapped by defeatism, caused by an over-focus on their practice rather than their position.  Their hearts and eyes are firmly fixed on the fact that they are still mired in their own flesh, that they continue to live less than God’s best, that they continue to sin.  And though most wouldn’t say that their salvation is in any way dependent upon their performance, though most readily admit that the Bible clearly teaches that salvation is based entirely on Jesus’ FINISHED work for them on the cross, in practice they really aren’t sure of it at some deep, perhaps even subliminal level.  They want to draw near to God, they want to experience His grace and His peace…but they are so very painfully aware that they very much do not deserve it that they are hindered from ever really resting in His finished work for them.

Their symptoms point to a single diagnosis:  Their focus is on their practice, to the downplaying or outright ignoring of their position.  The indicated treatment: meditating on what the Bible says of who they are and where they are in Christ, meditating on the fact that Jesus is infinitely mightier than their own fallenness.  Jesus has conquered their sin at the Cross, and when He took the cup of the Father’s wrath for their sin, He drained it to the dregs, so that there is nothing left for them to atone for once they have called on Him for mercy.

And that yes, it “took” the first time they asked Jesus to forgive them.  No, they’re not on probation.  Yes, I’m really, really sure.  Here’s Ephesians; let’s study that deeply for a while, eh?

triumphOn the other side of the problem, however, you find the equal-but-opposite problem – and it can be even more of a doozy than the first.  On that side of the equation, you have a pervasive (and, quite honestly, very odiously arrogant) attitude of triumphalism.  The problem here is an over-focus on position, to the downplaying or outright ignoring or denying of practice.

Here on the Glorious West Coast of Michgan, I deal with a lot of saints who struggle powerfully with spiritual defeatism.   I have had to continually remind these precious saints that the issue was decided at the Cross, and that they need to take their eyes off their own selves and turn them to Jesus and His finished work for them.I have recently, however, been seeing an uptick in the instance of Christians who are walking in an obnoxious species of triumphalism.  Whereas the defeatist Christian never fully experiences the awesome peace and grace of God because of their awareness of and over-focus on their own frailty, the triumphalist insists that no, he is not acting in the flesh, because He is hidden in Christ, so back off, bub…while he is, in fact, very much operating in the flesh.

For these saints, the very deep and abiding problem is that they never come to terms with the fact that they are still prone to sin.  Sure, they admit that they struggle, that they make mistakes, that they still sin in a very general sense…but it’s not as bad as all that, you see, because they are saints, after all.  What this leads to is a tendency to be very quick to dispense correction to others…but to be invincibly closed to receiving correction themselves.

The defeatist saint is crippled with stunted spiritual growth due to an inability to enter into the rest of the Lord; the triumphalist saint is crippled with stunted spiritual growth due to an inability to see their own very real fallibility, and therefore an inability ex post facto to deal with their flesh – since what they deny has any real, pervasive force they likewise deny really needs to be dealt with.

Here’s how that manifests:  A triumphalist saint walks in pride, is critical of others, is lax with regard to personal holiness, but claims to be mature, has a vaunted view of his own spirituality, and feels unduly entitled to the deference which is due them their position, absent any real substantive reason for said deference (and, in fact, in the presence of real, substantive reasons for withholding such).

A defeatist wearily toils under the impossible burden of self-condemnation, and any critique of his walk with the Lord tends simply to confirm that self-condemnation and increase his burden.  A triumphalist will critique you on your walk with the Lord, but will react very badly when you return the favor.

We came face-to-face with this phenomenon recently; an individual that my lovely and gracious wife and I are peripherally familiar with acted in a very inappropriate manner and needed to be rebuked, which set off the proverbial fireworks.  When confronted with the inconsistency of his claim to be a godly, mature spiritual leader, he immediately responded that he was highly offended that his godly, mature spirituality would ever be called into question – he was, after all, filled with the Spirit, called holy and a saint, and had been given victory in Jesus.

He could not see – could not see – the gross inconsistency between his position and his practice…and therefore could not see that that very dissonance is something that needs to be addressed.

As Martin Luther’s famous restating of James’ great maxim puts it:

We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.

The triumphalist would likely never consciously contradict Luther…but his actions and attitudes stand in as sufficient contradiction nonetheless.

The defeatist cannot bring himself to claim any of the blessings of God for his life, so wracked with guilt as he is.  The triumphalist claims those blessings and more, demands them even due to his position, and does so while subtly or flagrantly living contrary to the God who desires in all cases to bestow such blessings.  He feels no particular need to live according to the responsibilities of his position, while seeking to enjoy the rights and privileges of it.

In both cases, true spiritual growth is greatly hindered, true spiritual maturity is denied, true fellowship with God and man remains unrealized.

The answer to both extremes is a remarkably simple one:  To realize both my position and my practice matter, to acknowledge that my standing before the Lord is wholly dependent upon my position, and the Spirit’s great work in my life this side of the veil isn’t so much to bestow upon me His spectacular gifts of prophecy, healing, and tongues (though He obviously does that), but rather more so to incrementally bring my practice into harmony with my position, and that the two sides to the same issue are utterly inseparable.

To the defeatist, the Bible’s encouragement is to fully trust in Christ and His finished work for you.  Your standing before God, and His favor towards you, is not in the least measure based on your performance, but on your simply trusting in that finished work.  You are secure in Jesus, because He carried your sin on His Person to the hill of Calvary, all of it, suffered the full and unmediated wrath of the Father for that sin, and forever secured your salvation and right standing with God.  He did all of this alone, and He did it infallibly.  You cannot ever improve on His finished work by your penitence, your self-improvement, or your anything; He did it all, He paid it all, and now in return for your simple faith He gives you all.  Enter into the rest and joy of your Lord, for this is His great desire, and this is what pleases Him, not your doomed efforts at reformation.  Your simple, child-like faith in His mercy and grace won for you at the Cross, and nothing else.  As the hymn of the faith says:

Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Therefore, you can rebuke the whisper of the enemy in your heart which says that the Father is displeased with you, that you do not measure up, that you are utterly unworthy of the least of His mercies.  With the exception of the first part, the rest is all true!  And so what?  Even so, God is forever pleased with you, because of Jesus, and since you are hidden in Him, and He does measure up, and He is worthy, so are you.

Don’t rest on how you feel, rest on what He says!

Don’t wait until you “get”  it or “understand” it – you never will!  Instead, rejoice in it by faith – which is the very principle by which we are called to live in the first place, not by merit or performance.  Simply faith!

To the triumphalist, the Bible’s admonition is to remember that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble – and that the essence of humility is to have a right and sober view of oneself.

Which includes the concept of not thinking of oneself more highly than he ought to think, in fact, of thinking of others as as being better than oneself.

Paul puts it like this:

Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.

Understand also, dear trumphalist, that although it is indeed true that your standing before God isn’t based on your performance, your life still matters to God, and He expects you to live it for Him – which includes the idea of daily crucifying your flesh…which in turn directly implies that your flesh requires daily crucifying!  Keep in mind that Romans 7 appears before Romans 8 – by design, not simply by logical necessity.  The same Apostle who speaks in the present tense and includes himself in the triumphs and glories of the eight chapter, speaks in the present tense and includes himself in the struggles and setbacks of the seventh chapter.  John, agreeing with Paul, in the same epistle in which he declares that the true believer cannot {continue in} sin, also is very painfully clear that the believer can never be completely free of sin this side of the veil, and must determine to struggle against sin.

Therefore, you must be open to the same correction you are quick to apply to others.

You must recognize that though what you do does not save you, your salvation necessarily changes what you do.  Yes, you are blessed beyond the curse because of Jesus, but you are supposed to, therefore, live in real blessing, not simply demand it.  Yes, you are eternally righteous in Jesus; therefore, live like it.  Yes, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise; therefore, give evidence of that sealing by a life lived in humble joy before God and man.

As Martin Luther has said:

The true, living faith, which the Holy Spirit instills into the heart, simply cannot be idle.

…which is really another way to restate James:

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

Both Christian defeatism and Christian triumphalism are extremes of Christian thinking and attitude which are combatted by a proper perspective:  My position is eternally secure in Christ, my standing with God is based on His finished work, and so my practice, which does not determine my standing, is however daily to be brought more and more in line with that exalted position, by the grace and working of the Spirit.

I ran across a very insightful article on the Grateful To The Dead church history blog, titled Embrace Your Inner PentecostalIn it, he examines Pentecostalism’s abiding fruit and contributions to the larger Body of Christ.  I think it’s an article very much worth reading.

Two highlights for me:

A typical Pentecostal service follows no printed order; bulletins, if present, contain only announcements. After all, why should an order be needed? “All the members expect anyone of the local assembly to follow the Spirit’s leading,” Pentecostal scholar Russell Spittler has written, “and to do so at once.”

This sort of congregational freedom has marked Pentecostalism from its beginning, along with a unique emphasis on the “priesthood of all believers.” Azusa Street pastor William J. Seymour, the driving force behind the earliest Pentecostal revival, typified a new breed of church leader. He allowed and encouraged worshipers to exercise their gifts during services, providing what Fuller professor Cecil M. Robeck has called “a forum for various members of his congregation to make their case or to demonstrate their charism in the context of the worshiping community, without fear of recrimination.” When someone moved beyond the bounds of accepted order, Seymour corrected him or her in a manner that, while firm, was also “gracious and soft-spoken.”

Seymour also worked with a diverse team of volunteers and gave them a great deal of autonomy within certain boundaries. His leadership model was decentralized and open to genuine moving of the Spirit in his co-workers and in the entire congregation. Lay ministers were encouraged and empowered, because the Holy Spirit blew wherever he wanted to—and God forbid anyone stand in the way.

This style of ministry is seen today in many churches. A professor of religion at the University of Southern California, Donald E. Miller, noted in Reinventing American Protestantism (University of California, 1999) that Pentecostalism’s transparent personal style and non-hierarchical corporate structure had migrated to three prominent California churches: Calvary Chapel, the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, and Hope Chapel. These neo-Pentecostals “truly did believe in the priesthood of all believers,” Miller reported. “People were not only having their needs met, but they were finding an avenue for service. That created a lively sense of community—something that many people yearned for.

 

Until that moment, I had been dutifully following scholarly debates about whether baptism in the Holy Spirit was primarily about holiness or power. But these testifying scholars described Spirit baptism in terms of something deeper than either one. Indeed, they all put their finger on one main effect: a new, joyous sense of communion with a loving God who counted every hair on their heads and watched over them every minute. The central moment of their Pentecostal experience had opened them to a deep well of living water from which everything else flowed; it had opened them to the personal, relational presence of the Living God.

A quick check of history books confirms the centrality of divine encounter for Pentecostals. William Seymour and his co-leaders repeatedly told the Azusa Street faithful that their experience with the Spirit was not about speaking in tongues. It was about God’s presence through the crucified and risen Christ.

One of the books I’m reading is "John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life", and in it I just read a great sort of ”why grace changes everything" quote:

Namely, that we see God as the only lord of our soul, and His Law as the only rule and spiritual instruction for our conscience, so that we do not serve Him according to all kinds of foolish human regulations. Further that He wants to be served by us in spirit and with a clean heart. On the other hand, we admit that in us there is nothing but unrighteousness, that we are corrupt in all we think and do, so that our heart is an abyss of evil. We therefore doubt ourselves, deny any claim to our own wisdom, worthiness, or aptitude for the good, turn to the fountain of all good which is Jesus Christ, and receive what He gives us, the reward of His suffering and death, so that we may be reconciled to God through it. Washed clean in His blood, we are now no longer afraid that our sins will prevent us from finding grace at His heavenly throne. Assured that our sins have been freely forgiven on the basis of His sacrifice, we find our rest and assurance of salvation. We are sanctified through His Spirit to devote ourselves to obeying the justice of God. Strengthened by His grace, we will be victorious over the devil, the world, and the flesh. Finally, as members of His body, we do not doubt that God counts us among His children, and that we may with full confidence address Him as our Father.

Very insightful and very spot-on blogpost here:

American Christianity has been severely synchronized to the idol of individualism. This has been clearly illustrated to me time and time again by the numerous amounts of Christians who have a complete disregard for the centrality of the local church. They act as if belonging to a church is an option on par with belonging to a gym or pouring cream in their coffee. They see church as merely an additive that is optional. This, of course, is a lie bellowing up from the smoky pits of hell. I have spent the last few years of my life working hard to confront this hersey. When I speak on this subject I will often cite the following quote from Cyprian: “You cannot have God as your Father if you do not have the church as your mother.”

Read the whole article here.

Friend and fellow-pastor Tom Spithaler discusses Christian freedom here.

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