The Power of Powerlessness

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy, M.A. Theology

ONE OF THE MOST confusing statements I have heard is “surrender to win.” Consider wartime principles: The Battle of Appomattox is one of the most momentous events in American history—Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, which effectively ended the Civil War. World War II ended on September 2, 1945 when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay. By all normal accounts, Lee and Japan lost the war when they surrendered to their opponents. So, how can we win by surrendering? Because “starting” something new (presumably “good” or better) requires “stopping” something bad—surrendering our fleshly will to the source of all good and abandoning bad or evil behavior.

Our personal (spiritual) battles are not against people, but against the ruling powers of darkness. Paul says, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12, NRSV). Our enemies are not human, but rather cosmic powers (see Eph. 1:21; 2:2; 3:10). Paul is saying human existence is encompassed by cosmic forces, some clearly malevolent. Christ, through his crucifixion and resurrection, has given us power over these evil forces, but at a tremendous cost to Him, which necessarily required surrendering to the will of the Father, even unto death. Likewise, to have victory over sin and evil we must surrender to the will of the Father, and to the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The footnote to Ephesians 6:12 in the ESV Study Bible says, “This list of spiritual rulers, authorities, and cosmic forces (see 3:10) gives a sobering glimpse into the devil’s allies, the spiritual forces of evil who are exceedingly powerful in their exercise of cosmic powers over this present darkness. And yet Scripture makes clear that the enemy host is no match for the Lord” (1). Paul calls Satan the “god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4, ESV). This is the sole reference to Satan as “god of this world” in the New Testament. Paul contrasts the wisdom of the Holy Spirit against the wisdom “of this age or of the rulers of this age” (see 1 Cor. 2:6).

Matthew Henry writes, “Spiritual strength and courage are needed for our spiritual warfare and suffering… [our] combat is not against human enemies” (2). Klein says these powers are “…personal, demonic intelligences whose influence affects structures and spheres in the world” (3). This type of malevolent power has the capability of altering our circumstances to its aggrandizement and our detriment. Many people are shocked by the amount of evil in this world. We see its proliferation every day in our media outlets. The problem of evil begins with the assumption that God should want to eliminate evil. If God is all good but not all powerful or knowing, then perhaps he doesn’t have the ability to intervene on every occasion. Likewise, if God is all powerful and knowing but not all good, then perhaps he has a mean streak. But we are free moral agents. God cannot “choose” for us by eliminating all the wrong choices we might make.

How This Applies to Addiction

It is sometimes incomprehensible to me that as a Christian I struggled in active addiction for four decades. I have met over a hundred Christians who also struggle in this manner. The key to breaking the cycle of addiction is surrender, and you would think a Christian would understand surrendering to Christ. The First Step of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) requires the alcoholic to admit he or she is powerless over alcohol and as a result their life has become unmanageable. No one cares to admit to being powerless; it sounds like complete defeat. But I am talking about letting go—of the reins; of being in charge; of sitting on the throne; of past hurts, harms, and hangups. Yet, despite our best efforts, it is impossible to free ourselves from mistakes and baggage. Convinced we’ve been wronged, we hang on to anger and resentment. Personally, I resented family for “causing me” to become an addict. If you had my childhood, you’d use too! I became so involved in the whys of my drug and alcohol abuse that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees; there was a much larger issue at hand: no matter the cause, I needed to arrest my active addiction and move forward. I had to stop being overwhelmed by every little detail to the point where it obscured the overall situation.

Sadly, holding onto guilt, shame and grief causes unnecessary pain and suffering that can make it difficult to move forward. The longer we are in pain regarding past mistakes or harms, the more likely we forget who we were “before all this trouble began.” We identify with our pain, and unfortunately we choose destructive means for dealing with it. Proverbs 19:11 says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” Jesus is speaking to the disciples in Luke 17 about harms and offenses committed against them. He adamantly states, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). There is a common unifying sense in the community of believers: rebuking of a sinning brother; forgiving the offense of such a brother. Jesus wants us to see how our “being offended” is a trap or snare (from the Greek skandala) of Satan. We must not be unforgiving, whatever the offense.

No matter the scenario, we can divide all offended people into two basic categories: those who have been treated unjustly, and those who think they have been treated unjustly.

For years I was unforgiving of my family’s unforgiveness. I went too far, sending an email to one of my brothers that essentially said, “Nice Christian attitude!” The response stung: You take a couple of courses online and now you have this ‘holier than thou’ attitude!” (He was referring to my graduate studies in theology.) I had taken this stance nothwithstanding my forty years of active addiction, countless promises to get clean, apologies for stealing their money and pills. I was expecting immediate forgiveness because this time things were “different.” Thankfully, I have managed to abstain from my drugs of choice (cannabis, benzodiazepines, and opiates) for 30 months. Regardless, I am not justified in demanding forgiveness. I completed my M.A. in Theology during that time. Still, I am not justified in demanding forgiveness. I have continued to minister to others who are struggling with active addiction (through this blog and through participation in the Recovery Church Movement at my local church). Yet, I still am not justified in demanding forgiveness.

The Power to Change

Powerlessness I can understand. It makes sense that we must surrender to win. When we let go of the past, we release ourselves from negative feelings attached to it, such as guilt, shame, resentment, and bitterness. But from where do we get the power to change? After all, “letting go” is easier said than done. Past hurts and harms bring many individuals to seek counseling. People with substance use disorder struggle mightily with letting go of the past. So, admitting our powerlessness is only part one of the process. It does us no good to sit and stew in our shortcomings. God told Joshua, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Isaiah said God will uphold us with His right hand (see Isa. 41:10). Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians covers great spiritual blessings brought to believers through the Holy Spirit. Paul discusses the “spiritual conflict” we all face, but is quick to inform us of the means by which we can admit our need for power and begin the process of changing who we are and how we behave. It is through our relationship with Jesus as Messiah that we too can come out from among the dead. As Christ was raised up and given all authority over sin and death, so we are raised with Him into the heavenly realm in identification with Him. The power by which we rise above our old sinful life is not of our own doing. Our new life is available only through the grace and mercy of the Father, predicated upon the death and resurrection of the Son. The victory of the cross has become our victory. We are no longer children of powerlessness. However, our success rests in admitting that without the victory of the cross we are powerless.

Paul says to “…put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24). Frankly, to be in Christ is to both hear of Him and to be taught in Him. The discarding of the “old man” and the donning of the “new man” are two sides of the same coin—one cannot operate without the other. Further, by design this is a moment by moment process. As Paul notes, we must not yield our bodies to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, thereby presenting our bodies as instruments for righteousness (see Rom. 6:13). Presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, is what Paul calls our “spiritual worship” (see Rom. 12:1). Some translations call it our “reasonable service.” The upside to this sacrifice, however, is access to a power greater than ourselves.

Human nature cannot be “reformed.” Paul says, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8). Instead, human nature must be regenerated. The “new creation” replaces the old nature. Paul eloquently describes the war between sinful man and regenerate man in Romans 7—a battle I am sure we’re all rather familiar with. Paul said, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15), adding, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (7:19). Of course, it is never enough to simply acknowledge this dilemma, for if we do it becomes a loophole: Not even Paul could stop sinning, so how can I? Reading on, we find out how Paul addressed this problem. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (7:24-25).

Not Without Christ

The expression “to have a mind like a steel trap” euphemistically means to be able to understand or grasp information quickly. I always thought the phrase referred to having a good memory. Someone with a “mind like a steel trap” could recall something that was in his trap. But what of steel versus steal? Nothing steals happiness and fuels pain more than being trapped inside your own head. Many of us are trapped inside the “mirror box” of our mind where every anxious worry, painful past memory, and self-deprecating judgement is reflected back to us, stealing our contentment; our self-acceptance. This is sometimes referred to as the trappings of life—the objects, activities, and other imagery associated with a particular condition, situation, or position in life, such as wealth, power, and prestige.

Do you live your life based on the expectations of others? Are you living your life trying to conform and keep pace with everyone else? Have you become so comfortable in your discomfort that you cannot see your way clear of your trappings? These questions are presented not as judgments but as an opportunity to dig deep beneath the piles of untruths that have been heaped upon us throughout our lifetime. Our “trappings” reveal the truth of who we are and what we create and experience. We tend to fall into the trappings of a situation or desire when something is missing in our life. The more “temporary” these trappings are, the more “temporal” our life feels to us. The result often features a sense of discontentment regardless of what we have accomplished or accumulated. The self-centered fear of not getting what we deserve or desire, or losing what we already have, poisons our mind, “keeping score” in a manner that is doomed to provide any true meaning.

Jesus warned, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21). Making “earthly” treasure our goal leads to anxiety about our lives, what we will eat or drink; or about our bodies, what we will put on. Jesus asks, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25). Instead, we should focus on the kingdom of God and His righteousness—our spiritual needs—and all these things will be added unto us (see Matt. 6:33). There is what we need, and what we think we need. It is only through trusting the Father for our needs that we can walk in the abundance of life of which Jesus speaks (see John 10:10).

Regarding these “trappings,” Paul says, “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5, NRSV). He uses “warfare” imagery here to remind us of the battle for our minds. The weapons of this warfare are not physical but spiritual, such as prayer, faith, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God. For it is by by the Spirit that we tear down strongholds of wrong thinking and behavior, not human reasoning or will power. The Greek transliteration of verses 4 and 5 is, “for the weapons of the warfare of us [are] not fleshly but powerful to God to overthrow of strongholds, reasonings, overthrowing every high thing rising up against the knowledge of God, and taking captive every design to the obedience of Christ” (4). Henry writes, “Thus the weapons of our warfare are very powerful; the evidence of truth is convincing. What opposition is made against the gospel by the powers of sin and Satan in the hearts of men! But observe the conquest the word of God gains” (5).

Greear writes, “…the gospel can change a heart, a community, and the world when it is recovered and applied… [but] it is essential that we distinguish religion from the gospel. Religion, as the default mode of our thinking and practices, is based upon performance… [but] the basic operating principle of the gospel, however, is not surprisingly an about-face, one of unmerited acceptance: I am accepted by God through Christ; therefore, I obey” (6). We love Christ because He first loved us. Love for God grows out of an experience of the love of God (see 1 John 4:19). Jesus told the disciples that the way to fruitfulness and joy—the “secret” to the Christian life—is to abide in Him. From the Greek (meno), abide literally means “to make your home in.” When we make our home in Christ, spiritual fruit begins to spring up in our daily affairs. True spiritual fruit comes only from getting swept up in intimate, loving encounters with Christ: to live as He lived and love as He loved.

References
(1) ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2273.
(2) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Entire Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1153.
(3) William W. Klein, “Ephesians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 165.
(4) Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 730.
(5) Matthew Henry, Ibid., 1129.
(6) J.D. Greear, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2011), xiv.

“I Don’t Go to Church. Too Many Hypocrites!”

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

MY FATHER DECIDED TO quit going to church “cold turkey” just about a year after I had accepted Christ as my Savior and received water baptism.* I was fourteen and was considering becoming a pastor. My father’s choice was based on his opinion that church leaders wanted more of his time and money, and the congregation was “full of a bunch of hypocrites.” This was in the early 70s and I did not have any means of going to church without my family. Today, many churches focus on youth, and provide transportation for young Christians who do not have the means of getting to services. One of the most common reasons that people give for rejecting Christianity is hypocrisy. But this allegation alone does not make it so, nor does it address the nuances of believers who say one thing but do another. Incidentally, I was one of those hypocritical Christians for decades. My “secret life” was full of sinful behavior and active addiction. But God used my hypocrisy for His glory (see Rom. 8:28). Coming to a decision to repent and get clean and sober, I began to seek sanctification and growth as a Christian. This led me to discover the ministry God was preparing for me all along.

The man said, “God wants me to tell you something.” That got my attention. He continued: “Everything you have been through since your birth until this very moment has been ordained by Him to mold you into the person He has called you to be.”

Hypocrite. What a horrible thing to be called. The first time I heard that word leveled at me was from the mouth of my youngest brother. We were sharing a house, along with our mother, when he confronted me. “I don’t want you living here. I hate you and I think you’re a hypocrite.” Sadly, he was right. Looking back over the previous thirty years, I saw nothing but hypocrisy. I was teaching Bible study at two county prisons while high on oxycodone I kept stealing from family members. Early in recovery from alcohol I was chairing AA meetings while high on marijuana. My life was full of lies and denial. My heart was conflicted. Yet I continued to live a dual existence. The Holy Spirit would not leave me alone! I felt convicted and would often cry out to God, apologizing, asking Him to “fix me.” To make my hypocrisy “go away.” But that’s not how it works! We are free moral agents, with freedom to choose. When we walk in the flesh, we feed fleshly appetites. Our self-will runs riot and we live a life of excess and abuse. God cannot choose for us; we are free to decide. And the choice is simple: A or B. God or Satan. Good or evil. Freedom or bondage. Hypocrisy or authenticity.

Truly, man cannot serve two masters. First, it is insanely ridiculous to think that we can be devoted simultaneously to two different responsibilities, ideals, or people. Legally, or perhaps “secularly,” it would seem possible to serve more than one interest. However, human nature does not allow us to have equal loyalty toward two things that are the complete opposites of each other. The conflicting pursuits are painfully obvious. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt, 6:24, ESV). The apostle John writes, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning… No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:8a, 9). Paul warned about loosing the light of the gospel. He said, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:1-2).

Christians are not immune to sinning. John was talking about the practice of sin in 1 John 3:8. My own hypocrisy brought me to the point where I confronted my premeditated habitual practice of sin. I realized how this was no different than planning on drinking or getting high (a relapse) and not reaching out to someone before I used my drug of choice. A conscious decision! As I wrestled with this behavior in my life, I commented to my cat that perhaps I should have the letter H tattooed on my forehead; then, when someone asked what it meant I could tell them that I am a hypocrite. (My cat meowed and walked away.) Shortly after coming to this realization, I watched The Passion of the Christ. It was my third attempt, and this time I made it through the torture scene, all the way to the end. Today, when I think about sinning on purpose (watching pornography, for example), I remember those scenes from The Passion, and what the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life on Earth was like. To say He suffered does not begin to describe it. There are no words. This though helps me to not abuse the grace of God. Some days it still requires a conscious effort (at least for now) to say no to temptation, but I am spurred on by a desire to grow in sanctification and to serve God. I choose to walk in the light and to avoid living in the darkness—that place where sin thrives; where I holed up during my active addiction.

What We Can Learn

We can we learn from those who struggle with habitual sin. First John 5:18 says, “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.” What does John mean by “does not keep on sinning?” Surely he is not suggesting Christians no longer sin. Paul clearly notes the struggle he faced. He said, “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience? Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise… I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it” (Rom. 7:14-19, MSG). But John and Paul tell us there is a way out. John writes, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him… everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 5:1, 4, ESV). Paul says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom. 7:24-25).

In the same manner that Jesus was “born of God” (see Luke 1:35), we are spiritually reborn and are alive in Christ through His atoning death and resurrection. It is because of our status as children of God, renewed in Christ, that we now possess the power to say no to habitual sin. We have been justified by faith (see Rom. 5:1), acquitted of our trespasses because Jesus paid the sin penalty for us. We have been reconciled with the Father through the Son (see Rom. 5:11). Regarding John’s comment (1 John 5:18) that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, Matthew Henry notes two distinct categories of people mentioned in the verse: (i) those who belong to God, and (ii) those who belong to the wicked one. Whoever is not of God falls under the power of Satan, and they do works that support his cause. Those who belong to God have been led to the Father by the Son, and they favor and love both. In fact, believers are “…in union with [the Father and the Son] by the indwelling and working of the Holy Spirit” (1).

What then is the proper definition of a hypocritical Christian? Sarah Stonestreet says, “A concept like hypocrisy requires a standard of morality or moral conduct with which a person generally agrees, but fails to act accordingly. Every person has some kind of standard by which they make moral judgments… Christians have a clearly defined moral standard which is found in the very nature of God and revealed in his word. Our standard is God’s own perfect goodness” (2). Hypocrisy has no place in the life of a true Christian. Jesus warned, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:3-5). Stonestreet says, “Whether or not Christianity is objectively true does not rise and fall on the subjective experiences of human beings.” Admittedly, there are many hypocrites in the Christian church, as there are in any of the world’s religions. When someone who professes to be a Christian continues to violate the principles or doctrines of Christianity, or acts in a manner that is not an exemplar of Jesus Christ, it prompts skepticism about the story of God’s unconditional love and grace.

Love is the very foundation of Christianity. The apostle John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:7-8). As I related in my blog article “Love: The First Great Commandment” (Nov. 8, 2021), we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and (secondly) we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Admittedly, it is not easy to love an enemy. In the same manner, it can be hard to love a hypocrite. In fact, most Christians consider a hypocritical believer to be an enemy of the gospel. One of my former pastors once said to the congregation, “The number one attraction to the gospel is Christians. Unfortunately, the number one detractor to the gospel is Christians.” This was why my father decided we were no longer going to church. The number one reason most people avoid God or religion today is duplicity of believers. Wallace writes, “A common objection to Christianity often sounds something like this: “Christians do not practice what they preach. They say one thing but do another. If the Christian God exists, He doesn’t seem to be powerful enough to transform His followers… I don’t believe the Christian God exists” (3).

Jesus had harsh words regarding this matter: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1). He told the Pharisees, those great religious leaders of the Jewish faith, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). He called them “…blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (23:24). Jesus also said hypocrites are “…those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). Paul wrote of hypocrites, “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:16). Of course, no one is perfect. Christians are capable of acting in ways contrary to their beliefs. The difference is a matter of repetition and attitude. James writes, “…confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). John says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Nominal Christians

I once heard the expression “Creasters” and asked what it means. It is a colloquial expression for believers who only go to church on Christmas and Easter. As tongue-in-cheek as this expression is, “nominal” Christians run afoul in a more troublesome manner. To be a nominal Christian is to be one in name only. Jesus said to the disciples, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'” (Matt. 7:21-23). To best understand this verse, consider the context. Jesus was concluding His Sermon on the Mount, adding a final warning about true faith. Jesus predicts that false Christians will claim to know Him, using all the right words, and may even make a great impression, but they will not belong to the Lord. A person can seem like a Christian in the eyes of others, but if their heart does not belong to Christ then in God’s eyes they are not “of Him” and will be sent away from His presence. Only those who do the Father’s will and who are known of God will enter heaven.

Something has gone terribly wrong. One third of the world call themselves Christians, but a significant proportion of them are missing. Many of them are missing from our churches. Many others are present, but are missing out on the joy of truly knowing and following Christ.

Not all nominal Christians are evildoers, intent on leading the elect astray. Some truly believe they are Christians because their parents are (or think they are) Christians; they went to church regularly growing up; maybe they attended a Christian parochial school or are enrolled at a Christian university. They “believe in God” and celebrate Christmas, but have not made a deliberate personal choice to accept the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus as the Messiah. They have not accepted Him as their Savior and Lord. An increasing number of Christians in the Western world fit this category. The term “cultural Christianity” has become popular. From the website gotquestions.org, cultural Christianity “…is religion that superficially identifies itself as ‘Christianity’ but does not truly adhere to the faith. A ‘cultural Christian’ is a nominal believer—he wears the label ‘Christian,’ but the label has more to do with his family background and upbringing than any personal conviction that Jesus is Lord. Cultural Christianity is more social than spiritual. A cultural Christian identifies with certain aspects of Christianity, such as the good works of Jesus, but rejects the spiritual aspects required to be a biblically defined Christian” (4). Cultural Christians remain silent regarding controversial topics such as abortion or homosexuality, and they do not share the Christian faith with others.

Concluding Remarks

When my father decided we were no longer going to attend church as a family, he did not say he stopped believing in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, nor was he per se rejecting biblical principles. What occurred in the family, however, was a gradual drifting away from those beliefs. We suffered in many ways over the years because of that decision. Solomon said to fathers, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). Raising and training a child within the context of this proverb means that it must be grounded in the Word of God. Paul writes, “…from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-17). Teaching children the truths of Scripture will provide them with a solid foundation for their faith in Jesus Christ, thoroughly equipping them to do good works; and preparing them to give an answer to everyone who asks the reason for their hope (see 1 Pet. 3:15). This is vital to preparing our young adults to withstand the onslaught of secularism, pluralism, and moral relativism they will encounter in secular academia when they leave the home for higher education.

It is critical that Christians grow in their faith, becoming committed and authentic believers in Christ. In today’s post-Christian culture, atheists tend to focus on the mistakes and the disingenuous behavior of Christians in the workplace and the marketplace. I recall screaming at “some idiot” who ran a stop sign several years ago. On the front of my car was a plaque that said Jesus First! (Not cool!) I have been candid in many recent posts about my hypocritical lifestyle in the past, even during times I professed to be a Christian and during my active addiction. The burden became so great that I had no choice but to address it. Christ said, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:1-2). Certainly, this applies to those who steer others away from the gospel by their hypocrisy! We are in no wise perfect as Christians, but we must strive daily to match our outward behavior to our Christian worldview and to live a life that points to Jesus.

References

(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1254.
(2) Sarah Stonestreet, “The Church is Full of Hypocrites!” Breakpoint: Colson Center (Nov. 8, 2021). URL: https://breakpoint.org/the-church-is-full-of-hypocrites/
(3) J. Warner Wallace, “Does Christian Hypocrisy Falsify Christianity?” Breakpoint: Colson Center (Oct. 4, 2018). URL: https://breakpoint.org/does-christian-hypocrisy-falsify-christianity/
(4) “What is Cultural Christianity?” Got Questions (July 14, 2021). URL: https://www.gotquestions.org/cultural-Christianity.html

* Water baptism is meant as an outward sign or public confession of one’s faith in Christ alone for salvation.

Jonah: A Reluctant Servant

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

THE THEME OF THE Book of Jonah is simple: The LORD is a God of boundless compassion, not just for “us” but for “them”—the wicked, the disobedient, the Jew, and the Gentile. Some scholars consider Jonah’s story to be an allegory, using fictional characters to symbolize theological principles. Specifically, some believe “Jonah” represents Israel in its refusal to carry God’s mission to “other nations.” No doubt Israel felt “chosen” and was reluctant to share its status with others. But Jonah is identified as an actual historical figure (see 2 Kings 14:25); his story has elements of prophetic narrative like those of Elijah and Elisha (1Kings). Jesus likened His own impending death and resurrection to what Jonah experienced when swallowed by a giant fish and regurgitated on the beach after three days and three nights (see Matt. 12:40-41).

God’s Sovereign Control

God is sovereign over everything, as expressed in Scripture. He is King, Supreme Ruler, Designer, Lawgiver of the universe. He is sovereign over events on Earth, as expressed in Scripture. God’s sovereignty is infinite, but He cannot will or do anything that is against His character. Grudem writes, “God cannot lie, sin, deny himself, or be tempted with evil. He cannot cease to exist, or cease to be God, or act in a way inconsistent with any of his attributes” (1). We have been given a portion of God’s power—mental, spiritual, persuasion, authority. Grudem writes, “…when we remember that the sum of everything that is desirable or excellent is found in infinite measure in God himself, then we realize that it could not be otherwise: whatever excellence there is in the universe, whatever is desirable, must ultimately have come from him, for he is the Creator of all and he is the source of all good” (2) (italics in original).

David decreed, “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psa. 103:19, ESV). David would often pray, “Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all” (1 Chron. 29:11). Jeremiah said to God, “Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you” (Jer. 32:17). Paul said of Christ, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph. 3:20).

God’s Determination

The Book of Jonah shows God’s determination to make sure His will is carried out. Jonah finds out first hand what can happen when we tell God no! Jonah was unwilling to go to Nineveh, so he tried running away. We know from Genesis 3 that hiding from God is impossible. God knew precisely where Adam and Eve were hiding in the Garden when He asked, “Adam, where are you?” I believe God was saying, Adam, consider where you are compared to where you were before you disobeyed Me. Adam and Eve decided to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil so they could know as God knows; to look within themselves to determine what is good and what is evil; to decide the meaning of life. At that point, man lost his “vertical” (heavenward) orientation with God, exchanging it for a “horizontal” orientation (within and between self and others). Indeed, the number of worldviews is as varied as those who hold them.

When Jonah was thrown into the angry sea by the superstitious crew, they put him back in the path of God’s will. God’s plan will always be accomplished. Whenever God calls on us to “go forth” and perform a task, He begins with a single request. He told Jonah, Go to Nineveh. Any “call” to mission from God is a heavy obligation. Because we are not equipped to comprehend God’s plan all at once, He reveals it to us one step at a time. If God were to reveal the entire journey up front, we would not need faith in Him to equip us for the mission. God says, I know where I am sending you. Trust me and I will get you there. His determination must become our determination. Consider how Jesus was determined to accomplish God’s purpose (a plan for redemption) regardless of what it would cost—humiliation, severe physical pain, mocking, (temporary) separation from the Father (see Matt. 27:46), and death. Crucifixion is so gruesome the Romans coined the phrase excruciate to define the punishment: ex meaning “out of” and cruciate meaning “from the cross.” To excruciate is “to cause great agony or torment” by nailing someone to a cross. It is a slow and agonizing death. Christ willingly paid the wages of our sin. We have a plan of redemption because of the unwavering resolve that characterized His entire life.

Determination gives you the resolve to keep going in spite of the roadblocks that lay before you. 

Determination is our ability to make difficult decisions and accomplish God’s goals based on the truths of God’s Word without regard for what may be encountered. It is the ability to set ourselves toward Godly pursuits and not allow ourselves to be distracted or discouraged. “Put false ways far from me and graciously teach me your law! I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I set your rules before me. I cling to your testimonies, O LORD; let me not be put to shame” (Psa. 119:29-31). Paul wrote, “Brothers, 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, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). Jesus told the disciples, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Proverbs says, “Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established (italics added).”

We often hear about the determination of men and women in the mission fields of the world. Mattew Egwowa, of the Ibru Ecumenical Centre, writes, “The syndrome of waiting for God is an old syllabus of the classical believers, but now is an emergence of end time radical believers—the revolutionists: Enough is enough. Such movement begins with a determination; and the launching pad is courage. Courage is despising danger and braving the risk to achieve your goal” (3). Determination is carried on the wings of necessity. It must fly in the face of fear. God said, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10). Egwowa says, “Until fear goes, God cannot come to your aid [and you] cannot tract the supernatural intervention of the Almighty God; fear must leave for faith in God.” In other words, the determined man must not only be fearless, but must also be soundly rooted in faith. Jonah’s strongest objection to bringing the message of repentance and forgiveness to the Ninevites was his hatred for the Assyrians.

The Need for Repentance

The need for repentance is universal and is not bound by time, geography, nationality, race, or culture. God prepared to destroy the ancient city of Nineveh because of its rabid sin. It had become as evil as Sodom. As with Jonah, there are times when we might not want God to forgive those who have hurt us. Jonah hated the Ninevites, and he did not want them to be saved. Nineveh was the oldest and most populated city of the ancient Assyrian civilizations, located near the modern city of Mosul on the Tigris River. The Assyrian army sacked a number of cities, which included Jonah’s home town of Gath Hepher. He may have seen his mother and father slain and his siblings captured. He was not able to assuage his anger and resentment of Nineveh and the Assyrians under his own power. As Christians under the New Covenant, we understand God’s position on forgiveness. We struggle with forgiveness, but our salvation is rooted in it.

Unforgiveness is one of Satan’s powerful weapons. He knows it is impossible that no offenses should come (see Luke 17:10), so he sways us to anger and indignation. The Greek word for offense (adíkima) means “malpractice, wrong, tort, misdeed.” Interestingly, the NIV translation of 17:10 is, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they came.'” Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees since Luke 16:14. Now, however, He turned to the disciples. The Greek word that covers “things that cause people to sin” (skandala) means “traps,” but symbolically this includes anything that causes people to fall back into sin. Jesus said this trap is so egregious that “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:2). Remarkably, the “trap” of Jonah’s refusal to let go of the offense by the Assyrians caused him to sin by disobeying and God and running from His calling. God loves obedience more than sacrifices (see 1 Sam. 15:22). He expected Jonah to obey His command in spite of the anger and resentment he held against the Ninevites and Assyrians. And He expects our obedience in forgiving others.

Paul said in his second letter to Timothy, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:24-26). The “snare of the devil” should be with the offending party, not with the one who is offended. It is human to react adversely to being wronged, but we are called to seek help from the Lord to let go of the offense, allowing the other party to “own it,” forgiving them in love and grace. This is why John Bevere divides all offended people into two categories: (a) those who have been treated unjustly, and (b) those who believe they have been treated unjustly (4).

I became so ensnared when my family refused reconcile with me after forty years of my active addiction, manipulation, lies, thefts, and defiance. My thought was, Hey, I mean it this time! Now, I have been clean for twenty-nine consecutive months, and I have completed a B.S. in Psychology and an M.A. in Theology. My daily mission is directed toward those who still struggle with active addiction and those who have quit and want to change their lives forever. My offense was great despite the truth of my behavior. I had in fact become unforgiving of their unforgiveness. Perhaps there is no trickier trap than “justifiable” anger. One of my mentors remarked that until I forgive my family members (e.g., of their unforgiveness), they cannot forgive me. It is a spiritual axiom that I was standing in the way of God’s blessing me with forgiveness and reconciliation from my mother and my siblings.

God’s Full Assurance

Many have wondered why God used Jonah to carry out His will after Jonah refused to go to Nineveh. Foremost, our LORD is the God of second chances. When God commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah’s immediate reaction was, Oh no. Nope. Not going to Nineveh. In defiance, Jonah bought a ticket to the farthest place west that was known at the time—go any farther and you will sail off the edge of the planet. He went to “the end of the world” to escape God’s will. As he was on the boat, a tempest of severe weather struck the ship. The crew ultimately tossed Jonah overboard as a sacrifice hoping to calm the angry sea. Well, that’s the end of that, right? Jonah will surely perish and God will send someone else to deliver His message in Nineveh. Jonah 1:17 says, “Then God assigned a huge fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the fish’s belly three days and nights” (MSG). I can only imagine Jonah’s state of mind while laying among partially digested food and stomach acid!

“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the hear of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD'” (Jonah 2:2-9).

I find it noteworthy that Jonah knew for certain it was God who tossed him overboard in a tempest and had him swallowed by a giant fish. Jonah acknowledged God’s sovereignty when he said “your waves and your billows passed over me.” Jonah experienced utter darkness in the belly of the fish and got a taste of Sheol. And then, “The LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). He was being given a second chance. Ever have one of those? Maybe more than one second chance? I’ve lost count of how many second chances God has given me over the decades. A friend of mine who owns a Christian bookstore reminded me that God casts our sins into the sea of forgetfulness. I don’t think this means God cannot “remember” what we have done, but it does mean our offenses have been forgiven and will not be “recalled” or held against us. We have been redeemed through Christ.

To illustrate that God has separated us from our sins as far as the east is from the west, my friend brought out a globe. “Take your fingers and walk west around the globe,” she said. She kept turning the globe, telling me to continue “walking” around the globe four times. Then she asked me, “As you walked toward the West, did you encounter the East?” I had not. Then she had me walk up the globe toward the north pole, and down the other side to the south pole. She said, “What happened regarding North and South?” Walking up the globe I encountered the North Pole, and as I walked down the other side I encountered the South Pole. I greatly appreciated the illustration.

The Mission; the Command

Here’s where the story comes down to “street level.” As Christians, we have a commission to go to every corner of the globe sharing the gospel and making disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to follow all that Jesus taught the disciples (see Matt. 28:18-10). Why are we going in the opposite direction? When we get outside the will of God, we give in to our fear. We rationalize our actions (e.g., they probably won’t believe in Jesus!), or we say, “Let someone else go, I’m no missionary.” God sends whom He needs to send for each mission; the one who can best carry His message. Quite often what God needs to say in the situation can only come from the person He sends! Imagine how convinced Jonah was about God’s intentions after being regurgitated from the belly of the giant fish!

Chris Hoke wrote an amazing memoir (5) about his work as a minister to the homeless, migrant farmers, and prisoners. His experiences opened up a whole world where some lives seem to matter less than others: drug addicts, alcoholics, people suffering from mental illness, the incarcerated, the “illegal” alien. We need to erase margins that often stand in the way of inclusion—where the “demonizing” ceases and the “disposable” are no longer tossed aside. All people, even the most troubled, are worthy of a second chance. Why is it so easy to demonize people? What are we afraid will happen if we reach out and embrace the outcast? I had the nasty habit of judging people for most of my life. When I renewed my commitment to be “in the way” of Christ, I looked closely at this tendency and noted a need to promote or prop myself up at the expense of others. Coming back to Christ gave me at least a desire to put myself second and to stop judging others, but this character defect was deeply rooted and in need of “weeding.” Chris Hoke’s ministry to life’s “less than” individuals is refreshing.

Concluding Remarks

Jonah allowed his anger and resentment toward the Assyrians and the Ninevites to thwart his obedience to God. He no doubt felt “justified” having witnessed the Assyrians kill his parents and snatch his siblings. Perhaps Jonah was “left behind” to warn others to comply with the enemy or suffer the same fate as his family. This is a familiar theme in the first Star Wars movie. Luke Skywalker returns to his village to find it burned to the ground and his aunt and uncle murdered. It was at that moment that a darkness began to move in his soul. Luke tried to rush his “jedi” training so he could avenge his village and his aunt and uncle. Obi-Wan Kenobi taught Luke to calm his anger and search diligently for the “force.” Jonah was similarly blinded by hatred and resentment. These emotions are not fruit (“evidence”) of the Spirit at work in our lives, but are examples of the flesh controlling our actions.

We cannot hide from God. Once “called,” we will be pursued to whatever end we ultimately choose—stay or run. As with Christ Hoke, and with Jonah’s mission to Nineveh, God sends whom He needs to send for the circumstances at hand. God’s message could only be delivered by Jonah—ultimately, forgiveness and redemption. It is as if we’re to come away with the lesson, If Jonah could put aside his strong feelings against the Assyrians for murdering his parents and focus on performing God’s will, we can forgive those who have offended us and get on with our calling. God’s judgment might be “delayed,” but it will always be exercised. Nineveh’s repentance was short-lived, leading to their destruction 100 years later. God is jealous and avenging; slow to anger but mighty in power. Maybe there is a deeper message in the eventual destruction of Nineveh (and of the entire world). Jesus wants more than nominal “believers.” Believing in Christ is not the same thing as being in Christ. Nineveh went to great lengths to show God they feared Him: “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest of them to the least of them” (3:5). Yet, they had no true change of heart.

Justice means “getting what we deserve.” Mercy involves receiving undeserved vindication. All have sinned. And the just punishment for sin is death: spiritual separation from God and eternal damnation. Thankfully, we are granted redemption through salvation under the New Covenant. God loved us enough to ask Jesus to suffer an unbelievable death as a propitiation for our sins. He who knew no sin became sin for us (see 2 Cor. 5:21). His ordeal was so incredibly horrific that it is incomprehensible. Mel Gibson and Jim Caviezel created scenes in The Passion of the Christ that many Christians are unable to watch. It took me three attempts to watch the film through to the end. I find it helpful whenever confronted with premeditated or habitual sin to remember what the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life were like. I also recall Christ saying to “nominal” Christians, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'” (Matt. 7:21-23).

References

(1) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 217.
(2) Ibid., 219.
(3) Mattew Egwowa, “Characteristics of Determination,” The Guardian: Conscience Nurtured by Truth (Nov. 13, 2016). URL: https://guardian.ng/sunday-magazine/ibru-ecumenical-centre/characteristics-of-determination/
(4) John Bevere, The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2004), 7.
(5) Chris Hoke, Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders (New York, NY: HarperOne), 2015.

The End of Me

Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.A. Theology

KYLE IDLEMAN’S BOOK The End of Me introduces us to the concept, “Where real life in the upside-down ways of Jesus begins.” In other words, the ways of Christ are often completely opposite of what we think might work. We think coming to the end of me means we cease to exist as an individual. It is Idleman’s belief that we need to be broken to be whole. I would add that we need to realize our brokenness—the mere presence of brokenness in our lives will mean nothing if it remains an undiscovered reason for our misery. Scripture speaks of many such dichotomies: mourn to be happy; humbled to be exalted; authentic to be accepted; helpless to be empowered; disqualified to be chosen; weak to be strong. No one knew this better than Paul.

Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20, ESV). He noted that through our own weakness we are made strong in Christ (see Phil. 4:13). He said, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Idleman quotes Colossians 3:3: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” We can only come to the end of ourselves through accepting our brokenness and our weakness. This is how Romans 8:28 operates in the lives of those who follow Christ. Psalm 34:18 reminds us, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”

Following Jesus means striving to be like Him. He always obeyed His Father, so we must strive to do the same (see John 8:29; 15:10). To truly follow Christ means to make Him our Savior and LORD; our redeemer and Master. Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:38-39). You cannot be “half a disciple.” When we cherry pick which verses to follow, or in any way serve self or the flesh instead of Jesus, we are not in the way of Jesus. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).

For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living(Rom. 14:8-9).

Regarding coming to the end of ourselves in order to find Christ, Idleman recalls a conversation with a church member: “I was returning a call to a man named Brian. I read [in] my notes that his eighteen-month-old son had died a few weeks earlier. I didn’t know the details, but as a father of four, I can’t imagine such a loss. I said a prayer as I dialed his number. Brian answered with a monotone Hello. Having had many conversations like this over the past twenty years, I knew there was not much I could say. So, after expressing my heartbreak for his loss, I allowed silence to settle into our conversation. After a few moments, Brian spoke four words I was not prepared for. I backed over him(1). After describing how their son opened the door and went outside, playing in the driveway, Brian explained how he discovered Jesus in a way he never had before. He said, “I feel like I reached this point in my life when I had absolutely nothing left, and it turns out that for the first time in my life, Jesus has become real.” When he reached the end of himself, Brian discovered Jesus.

We tend to fear any program of recovery or self-improvement that requires annihilation of “self.” Alcoholics often balk at Step 3 in the Alcoholics Anonymous program, fearing a loss of identity—Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him (2). Powell says, “Why don’t more Christians, myself included, look more like Jesus? Ego. You might call it ‘the flesh.’ I believe our definition for ‘ego’ closely parallels Paul’s definition for ‘flesh’. The ego is who you think you are. It’s your false identity, your body image, education, theological knowledge, clothes, friends, social status, job, successes and accomplishments. And, as Paul says, your ego is against your Spirit. Everyone has an ego, and I believe one of the major tasks of spiritual maturity is recognizing and letting go of the ego’s lies in favor of something better” (3).

The First Step

Idleman calls the end of me “where real life in the upside-down ways of Jesus begins.” This is the real paradox: at the end of me I find real life in Him. It is the same paradox as surrendering to win. Idleman writes, “[Jesus] is saying, ‘Down with the kingdom of this world and up with the kingdom of God” (4). Admittedly, I sometimes find myself feeling good when I spend money. Typically, my purchases are on items that will make me feel good or look good. Whenever we overspend to binge on the material things of this world we are establishing “idols.” Perhaps we do not like to look vulnerable. Personally, I don’t like to look “poor.” I cannot think of a better example of putting earth’s treasures and man’s respect before God! This is something I have finally come to examine closely.

Today, man has become masters of illusion, experts at covering pain, abusers of medication, slaves of financial debt, followers of fads, and partakers of loneliness. We don’t realize that we are broken, and that the only solution for being broken is to feel our brokenness. Another paradox: brokenness is the path to wholeness. Idleman believes real life begins at brokenness. He writes, “Broken things are precious. Broken people reveal the beauty and power of God. Flaws are openings(5). I could not agree more. I have found my illusory life has limited my spiritual life and hindered stepping into God’s will for my life. My prayer today is simple: God, take my broken pieces and remold them into what seems best to you. We all must become willing to let the cracks in our facade show, but we find this extremely difficult. Social media posts, for example, allow us to edit our appearance, our lives, our opinions. We post for acceptance, not authenticity.

Nouwen writes, “What is our true vocation in life? Where can we find the peace of mind to listen to the calling voice of God? Who can guide us through the inner labyrinth of our thoughts, emotions, and feelings?” (6). He speaks of people who “know” the story of Christ and possess a deep desire to let this knowledge descend from their minds into their hearts. The trip from our brain to our heart—a mere eighteen inches—can be one of the longest journeys we will take in our lifetime. We all have a sense of “heart knowledge,” and we know it can give us the proper perspective on life, on love, on God, but we fail to make the leap from head to heart. The prophet Ezekiel wrote, “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 11:19). Paul said, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom. 10:10).

It’s a Matter of Spirituality

In his chapter “All These Other Things,” Nouwen says, “The spiritual life is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence. No, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of pains and joys of the here and now. Therefore, we need to begin with a careful look at the way we think, speak, feel, and act from hour to hour, day to day, week to week, and year to year” (7). I learned a term in my undergraduate psychology studies: metacognition, which is an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. Essentially, it is “thinking about what you are thinking about.” For me, this can be the underlying source of my opinion or behavior at any given moment. In this regard, it is a lot like metadata: a set of data that describes and gives information about other data.

To become aware of what we are thinking, we must honestly and courageously confront our many self-deceptive games. For example, a mood of resignation will prevent us from actively searching for the life of the Spirit. My spiritual frustration came from deciding that I was unworthy of salvation; of God’s love. I decided He could not possibly use me. This led to a sense of being unfulfilled. I had a gnawing sense that I was useless and worthless. This caused a lot of inaction in my life, which led to boredom. Nouwen writes, “To be bored… does not mean that we have nothing to do, but that we question the value of the things we do” (8). This is a brilliant revelation! He further notes that boredom is often closely linked to resentment. Huh? When we wonder if what we do means anything to anyone, we easily feed used, manipulated, and exploited, which can lead to anger and resentment. If we remain in this state, we begin to ask, “Is my life worth living?” and depression is not far behind.

Life has a way of pouring us out. It takes away a loved one, our job, our home. It can also take away our health and our hope. We come to the point where we’re holding onto nothing. We feel empty and hopeless. But we need to be empty to be filled, and God loves to fill empty things. There are many examples of this in Scripture. Jesus filled 5,000 empty bellies (see Matt. 14:13-21); He filled the empty soul of the woman at the well (see John 4:7-26). When we surrender to Christ, we set the stage for restoration. He heals our brokenness and makes us whole in Him. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

When We Help Others

Our ability to remember even the smallest of details from a past experience is truly remarkable. The older we get, the more we have to remember. Our memory plays a significant role in our emotional well-being. Trauma, failure, grief, pains, joys, satisfaction—all are stored for our recall, whether by choice or as baggage. Most of our emotions are tied inextricably to our memory. Nouwen notes that we “…perceive our world with our memories… our memories help us to see and understand new impressions” (9). Accordingly, when we engage in helping others—whether as a professional or a lay minister—the first questions are always directed to memory. The emotional pain most commonly encountered when counseling others is a suffering of memories. It is not unusual for us to bury painful or traumatic events deep inside our being. Individuals who repress such events often come from a family who does likewise. “We’re not going to talk about this ever again!” This is prevalent in a family who lacks intimate communication.

What is buried cannot be healed. By cutting off the past, we paralyze our future actions. I read a passage from a book on Buddhism years ago that provided the following warning: If we fail to deal with emotional hurts of the past, they will impact our future, wherein our actions will not so much be undertaken by us than driven by our memories. Scheler says, “Remembering is the beginning of freedom from the covert power of the remembered thing or occurrence” (10). Nouwen believes when our memories remain covered with fear, anxiety, or suspicion, the Word of God cannot bear fruit in our lives. He further makes a remarkable comparison: “The strategy of the principalities and powers is to disconnect us, to cut us off from the memory of God” (11). Paul said, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12) (italics added).

Ferguson says, “We have seen through union with Christ… all that is his by incarnation becomes ours through faith… when we are joined to him there is also a sense in which his life and power become available to us to transform our lives” (12). Jesus has paid for our past, and He has sanctified our present, so that our past may not dominate our present Christian life. This is a key factor in making sure the power of our past experiences do not destroy us in the present. Indeed, we are more than conquerors through Christ (see Rom. 8:37). As we grope for direction, meaning, and purpose, our quest must not be hampered by the hurts and sins of our past. Unresolved trauma and anger color what we see in others. It is not ideal to see our lives as a long list of randomly chained incidents and accidents. This has no place in the ministry of reconciliation.

A man walks down the street, he says, ‘Why am I soft in the middle, now? The rest of my life is so hard I need a photo-opportunity, I want a shot at redemption. Don’t want to end up in a cartoon graveyard… there were incidents and accidents, there were hints and allegations—Paul Simon.

Nouwen compares revolution (on a societal level) to transformation (on a personal level), and he turns to Christ for further comparison. He writes, “The liberals and progressives are fooling themselves by trying to make an intolerable [world] a little more tolerable” (13). Revolutionaries do not want a better human being, but a new human being. Revolutionaries must face self-reflection; in their quest to improve society they are also fighting their own reactions, fears, and ambitions. Radical activism must begin with radical self-examination. If, as we’ve discussed above, life means breaking down the barriers to our painful past, conversion and social change both derive power from a source above and beyond the corporeal. Nouwen says Jesus has taught us that changing the human heart and society are not separate endeavors, but are “…as interconnected as the two beams of the cross” (14).

Concluding Remarks

Kyle Idleman tells us that when we come to the end of our ropes, “real life” begins in the upside-down ways of Jesus Christ. People believe there is “something out there” that might give meaning and purpose to their lives, but they can’t seem to discovery what it is. The Bible tells us life’s real prize is hidden, and we have to know where to look. Scripture is our treasure map. Paul writes, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Idleman says “the end of me” is where real life begins. Jesus told the disciples, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many [but] the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13-14). In other words, we can expect a tough path when we choose the road less traveled. It crosses through death, but it leads to life.

When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die. He told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Of course, Jesus is not telling us physical death leads to life; He is talking about dying to ourselves. Today’s post-Christian culture wants nothing to do with this “nonsense,” because for them life is all about celebrating ourselves, finding more for ourselves. But you cannot get there from here. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25). He sums up this heavenly principle by adding, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (16:26).

References

*True Christianity requires a commitment to follow Christ; to be “in the way of” Christ; to live according to the Christian worldview in all circumstances. It involves a denial of self.

(1) Kyle Idleman, The End of Me (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishing, 2015), 11.
(2) Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, 4th ed. (New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services), 2002.
(3) Frank Powell, “9 Ways Your Ego Prevents You From Experiencing God,” Frank Powell: Restoring Culture Through Christ. (n.d.). URL:
https://frankpowell.me/ways-ego-christians-god
(4) Idleman, Ibid., 26.
(5) Ibid., 37.
(6) Henri Nouwen, The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 5.
(7) Ibid., 7.
(8) Ibid., 10.
(9) Ibid., 224.

(10) Max Scheler, On the Eternal in Man, trans. Bernard Noble (New York, NY: Harper and Bros., 1960), 41.
(11) Nouwen, Ibid., 230.
(12) Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009, 1981), 103.
(13) Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (New York, NY: Random House, 2010, 1972), 22.
(14) Ibid., 25.

Learn to be Fervent

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

What Does it Mean to be Fervent?
On Fire for Jesus!

THE BIBLE TELLS US what is meant by fervent. “Fervor” is necessary for advancing God’s kingdom, and is put forth by spirit-filled Christians who boldly share the gospel with others. Fervent is sometimes referred to today as “passionate.” Being fervent is a critical component of apologetics (see 1 Pet. 3:15). Scripture features many stories about having passion for sharing God’s message. Paul said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1, ESV).

Merriam-Webster says fervent means: (a) very hot : glowing (like the sun); (b) exhibiting or marked by great intensity of feeling (e.g., zealous).

Under the header “Marks of the True Christian” in the ESV Study Bible (1) regarding Romans 12 it states, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (12:9-11) (italics mine). Paul essentially tells us to maintain our passion in serving God. To be “fervent for God” means to have an intentional, passion-filled heart for Him. We must align ourselves with God’s plan and purpose for our lives. Because of His saving grace, we are to give ourselves entirely to God. This is our reasonable service. Spiritual service and worship ultimately mean offering our whole lives to God. We are to determine what is expected of us and learn how to apply our new-found resources to all situations confronting us. Fervor suggests an imperative.

Fervent (zeontes or ζέοντες in the Greek) is an extension of zeo (ζέω)—a verb that primarily means “to boil with heat, be hot.” Figuratively, it means “earnest.” Regarding our Christian walk, the phrase can be translated to “boiling in our spirit for God.” It is a clear call from Paul that we are to avoid becoming lukewarm, tepid, or bored as we pursue God. “Lukewarm” is an extremely important concern for believers. God said, to the church in La-odice’a, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16).

“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11).

Jesus reminded His disciples, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matt. 5:13-14). Part of our being fervent for the gospel is to acknowledge our roles as salt and light onto the world.

Fervent Prayer

Prayer must always be a large part of the Christian lifestyle. The New King James Bible translates James 5:16 as, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Fervent prayer is that which is “impassioned, forceful, passionate, heartfelt, powerful, or wholehearted.” Henry writes, “In a day of affliction nothing is more seasonable than prayer. The spirit is then most humble, and the heart is broken and tender.” He adds, “…when a righteous person, a true believer, justified in Christ, and by his grace walking before God in holy obedience, presents an effectual fervent prayer, wrought in his heart by the power of the Holy Spirit…it avails much” (2).

The English Standard Version of the Bible translates James 5:16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” James offers a challenge in 5:12-20 to reverse negative patterns of action (especially wrong speech) in the community of believers by choosing the way of righteous wisdom. It is critical that we note that effective prayer includes confessing our sins to one another and praying for members of the community of believers. Consider how this concept played an important role in the ministry of Jesus. James is speaking of prayer put into action, or made operative. The point of James 5:13-18 is that prayer is important and God answers prayer, so we must make it a priority.

It is very exciting and rewarding when we experience a spiritual awakening regarding the goodness of the gospel. Each of us is a building block for the entire church to experience this kind of awakening. What does it take to achieve the marks of a true Christian? It takes a gospel-centered church. It also involves being saved unto good works. Healthy local churches feature prayer, sharing, discipleship, teaching the Word of God, and corporate worship. Further, we must have a living theology. We need to get God out of our heads and into our hearts. Augustine of Hippo said, “Moral character is assessed not by what a man knows but by what he loves” (3).

Paul said we are to “pray without ceasing.” We need not pray endlessly, 24/7, to meet this suggestion. Instead, we are to pray to the LORD regardless of circumstances. Begin with gratitude; get real with God (forego stiff, “religious” proclamations); find time throughout the day to talk with God; tell Him what He already knows; pray while waiting (for the bus, for a friend, for a return phone call, etc.); sing songs of praise during the day; quickly confess to God if you mess up; pray no matter the circumstances. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul commands us to stop being anxious and instead, “…in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). He told us to be watchful and thankful (Col. 4:2). He told the Ephesians to see prayer as a weapon for fighting spiritual battles (Eph. 6:18).

As we go through the day, prayer should be our first response to every fearful situation, every anxious thought, and every undesired task that God commands. We should also show gratitude for blessings and successes through prayer. A lack of prayer will cause us to depend on ourselves instead of depending on God’s grace. Unceasing prayer is, in essence, continual dependence upon and communion with the Father. I believe there is a tenet to be learned here: being fervent or passionate about God must accompany fervent prayer, without which we will likely be tossed to and fro by our circumstances. When we take our eyes off Jesus amid the storm, we begin to sink and to drown. There is much to be fervent about as a believer in Christ, and it begins with the forgiveness of sins and the power to life a victorious life through Jesus.

References

(1) ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2179.
(2) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1229.
(3) Cited in Henry Chadwick, Augustine: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 54

Set Your Hearts

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

THE SPIRITUAL LIFE IS to be lived no matter the cost, as it is the means through which Christians participate in the Kingdom of God while still in the flesh. Redemption and sanctification rescued us from the bondage of sin and set us apart for divine service. Paul said, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:13-14, ESV). Jesus provided an exemplar for Christian living, telling the disciples, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:26-28). In fact, life is supposed to be shared. We are called to step out in faith and put others first.

The power to live a successful Christian life is found only in Christ, but it requires effort on our part. We need to stand firm against the forces that pull us back to a carnal, fleshly, worldly life. Jesus related how difficult it is to enter the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:23). It is not easy to live as Christ lived. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul” (Matt. 16:26). Accordingly, a spiritual life must be a disciplined life. In the eyes of the LORD, it is better to obey than to present sacrifices (see 1 Sam. 15:22). The word “obedient” comes from the Latin word audire, which means “listening.” Spiritual discipline involves a concentrated effort to firmly establish an effective boundary between spirit and life. It is only through patiently waiting on God that we are able to hear His voice and understand His will for our lives.

D.A. Carson said, “People think of themselves as ‘spiritual’ because they have certain aesthetic sensibilities, or because they feel some kind of mystical connection with nature, or because they espouse some highly privatized version of one of any number of religions” (1). Religion tends to be a word with negative connotations while spirituality has positive overtones. Typically, we wonder how much of ourselves we must give up to live a spiritual life. We ask ourselves if “being good” is an effective sign that we are living as Christ would have us live. We attend church services, participate in church groups, visit the sick, and volunteer to make burgers at the annual church picnic. Maybe we participate in neighborhood outreach efforts or support missions. Yet, we wonder how much of our natural self can remain without impacting our spiritual life. C.S. Lewis said, “Make no mistake: if you are really going to try to meet all the demands made on the natural self, it will not have enough left over to live on. The more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you. And your natural self, which is thus being starved and hampered and worried at every turn, will get angrier and angrier” (2). The flesh battles the spirit, demanding satisfaction no matter the cost.

We come to Christ as new believers dragging our “self” with us to the cross. Lewis said, “Some of the things the ordinary self wanted to do turn out to be what we call wrong” (3). He pulled no punches regarding battling sexual impropriety. He writes, “…a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute” (4). The Christian life is both hard and easy. Jesus asks us to “give all.” He says to take up our cross and follow him. Lewis said, “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ” (4). As Christians, many of us neglect the mind and heart while we’re striving for a spiritual life. This is precisely what Christ advises us not to do. The average churchgoer objects to giving all, saying not everyone is called to pastor, or teach, or lead. Lewis was known to ask Christians, “How would you feel if Jesus came to you and spoke the words, Give me your all?I have stood at that crossroad many times, wondering how much all I have to give without giving all.

The grace of God, while free, is not cheap. Consider what Jesus endured during the last twelve hours of His life on earth in order that we might be justified before the Father. Our discipleship to Jesus costs nothing less than everything. Unfortunately, you would be hard pressed to find a sermon or teaching series on discipleship in the church today. To side step discipleship is to miss out on spiritual maturity. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt.28:18-20). Unfortunately, the Body of Christ has been drifting away from this commission. If the church fails to disciple new believers, it is impossible for them to learn how to live as Christ lived. Willard said, “Though costly, discipleship once had a very clear, straightforward meaning… there is a decision to be made: the decision to devote oneself to becoming like Christ” (5).

A Matter of the Heart

Paul writes, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-2). Proverbs says, “My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:21,23). Not surprisingly, the best way we can defend our heart and set it on God is to guard our thoughts. Paul said, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3-5). Solomon admonished, “Above all else, guard your heart.

Someone once said, “Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.”

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it” (Jer. 17:9). We cannot hope to share the gospel, or to teach others about the ways of Christ, without first setting our hearts on Jesus. The kind of spiritual existence God asks of us cannot be weak, dull, rudderless, lifeless. It should cause an engagement of the heart. Paul notes, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). Fervent means “having or displaying a passionate intensity.” If we are not fervent in our spiritual life, and if our will and inclination are not strongly and consistently applied to our affairs on a daily basis, we will wither and die on the branch. Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:1-2). The Father does two things to ensure a maximum yield: (1) He removes unfruitful branches, and (2) He prunes the remaining branches. Unfruitful branches are gathered and burned in the fire. Fruit is an illustration for good results coming from the life of a believer.

As believers, our fruitfulness requires having our hearts engaged in Christ. Every true disciple of Christ must love the LORD above his or her father or mother, sister or brother, spouse or children; yes, even above his own life. Merely having knowledge of doctrine and theology without religious affection for God will avail us nothing but the acquisition of data. Augustine of Hippo said, “My inner self was a house divided against itself. Why does this strange phenomenon occur? The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted” (6). Ours must always be a living theology. The believer is to be considered fidelis quaerens intellectum: a believer seeking understanding. Hart said, “Theology is the attempt by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world” (7). Theology involves far more than the mind; it is more than collecting data. Hart said, “Faith—when it is truly faith rather than a mere intellectual assent to some proposition or other—will always seek to enter into a fuller and deeper knowledge and understanding of that which matters most to it” (8).

Set your sights on His kingdom first.

Nouwen believes the spiritual life is not that which comes after or beyond our everyday existence. We must not pigeonhole spirituality. He said, “The spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of the here and now” (9). Martin Luther wrote, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading or speculation” (10). Of course, such an orientation clears the path for setting our hearts on Jesus. Vanhoozer says Christians learn doctrine in order to participate more deeply and passionately in the drama of redemption, adding, “Intellectual apprehension alone, without the appropriation of the heart and hand, leads only to hypocrisy” (11). Our spiritual life must begin with something firm to place our feet on (see Matt. 7:24-27). Without being grounded in Christ, we risk faltering at times of challenge or crisis. Moreover, we are ill-equipped for making a defense to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope we have in the gospel.

God willingly created man and all that exists in the physical realm. Under the warmth of His creative action and care, our first parents were invited to walk in complete fellowship with God; to get to know Him and to love Him. This is worship at its most pure. But through an act of rebellion, which was fueled by a desire to know as God knows, exist as God exists, sin entered in and tore a hole in the soul. Man became broken. Kapic writes, “It would be a dangerous misunderstanding to assert that we can only worship God once we have understood all the important doctrines” (12). Further, we do not need to be like God, or be on even footing with Him, to have a relationship with Him. Despite rebellion in the past, we must mend fences with God and allow Him to fill the God-shaped hole in our soul. Growing in our knowledge of God changes our view of every aspect of our lives. Kapic said it’s not as though we lose sight of all except God; rather, we see everything in the light of God. This degree of humility and submission is required for living a truly spiritual life.

All of life’s preoccupations and “what ifs” tend to enslave us; distract us from the metaphysical and spiritual realms of life. Our minds become filled with anxious thoughts as we struggle to do it all, be it all, and plan for it all. Nouwen writes, “Much, if not most, of our suffering is connected with these preoccupations” (13). It is as though we are always preparing for “eventualities,” such as career changes, serious illness, failed economy, domestic unrest, possible family conflicts, natural disasters, and the like. Anxiety can cause us to be fearful, suspicious, greedy, angry, defeated. In this sad state, we pay more attention to our physical surroundings, our aches and pains, our daily challenges, which prevents us from feeling real inner peace and freedom—the very shalom our LORD promised. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). When we are in a predisposed state of “what’s next” we fail to live in the moment. It is impossible to enjoy today if we spend the day regretting our past and worrying about our future. Existence certainly features periods of transition, but it is not productive to live our lives “in the corridor” on the way to somewhere else.

First Things First

Interestingly, Jesus does not address our worry-filled way of living by saying we should cut back on engaging with life’s affairs. Nor does He say we need to take a monastic sabbatical. Early Christian fundamentalism taught “coming out from among them” and safely existing within the walls of our churches. I believe the command “be ye separate” is not suggesting off-the-grid spiritual communal living. Nor does it mean stay away from all non-believers. We simply cannot reach those we despise and run from. Rather, Jesus wants us to change our center of gravity so that we seek Him first. This requires a change in focus. As noted in Scripture, we need a change of heart. Certainly, change in activities are often necessary as we grow in spiritual maturity and reach toward the goal of emulating Christ. Simply, this is a matter of setting our hearts on His kingdom first. Nouwen believes a heart set on the Father’s kingdom is also a heart set on living the spiritual life.

To set our hearts on the kingdom therefore means to make the life of the Spirit within and among us the center of all we think, say, or do.

Consider this. Jesus led a very busy life during the three years of His ministry—teaching, preaching, healing, expounding. He was so busy He had to “steal away” for alone time. Moreover, He did not lead the life of a zealot marching toward a self-imposed goal. He was concerned with one thing: putting the Father’s will and kingdom first. Remarkably, despite being God Himself in the flesh, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). The works Jesus did are the works the Father sent Him to do; the words Jesus spoke are the words the Father sent Him to speak. His was a ministry of obedience, sacrifice, and humble submission. Paul tells us, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom.5:18-19).

Concluding Remarks

Nouwen writes, “His Kingdom first. I hope that these words have received some new meaning. They call us to follow Jesus on his obedient way, to enter with him into the community established by the demanding love of the Father, and to live all of life from there” (14). The kingdom of the Father is now; not something to be achieved at a later date. It is the place where the Holy Spirit guides us, empowers us, instructs us, equips us, and renews us as we move through this world serving Him. As I mentioned above, a spiritual life without discipline is impossible. The practice of spiritual discipline allows us to exercise “silent prayer,” where we are content to sit quietly and wait on God. It is only through listening that we develop a life of obedience. It is critical that we establish a routine of solitude every day. The amount of time we spend pursuing “spiritual fitness” is less important than having the routine. Start with 10 minutes, 20 minutes; whatever you can set aside at this point. Remember, we are pursuing “spiritual fitness” much like an athlete seeks physical fitness. Increase the duration of each prayer session. Learn to exercise “silent prayer” where you wait quietly for God to speak to you. Simplicity and regularity are the best building blocks in finding your way to the Father. Create space for God in your life.

References

(1) D.A. Carson, “Spiritual Disciplines,” Knowing and Doing (Springfield, VA: C.S. Lewis Institute, Winter 2017). URL: https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/6134
(2) C.S. Lewis, “Giving All to Christ,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups, Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith, ed. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993), 8.
(3) Ibid., 7.
(4) C.S. Lewis, “Sexual Morality” in Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1952), 95.
(5) Ibid., 9.
(6) Dallas Willard, “The Cost of Nondiscipleship,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings, Ibid., 15.
(7) Augustine of Hippo, “Complete Surrender,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings, Ibid., 55.
(8) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995), 1.
(9) Hart, Ibid., 3.
(10) Henri Nouwen, The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 7.
(11) Martin Luther, in “The Inseparability of Life and Theology, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 41.
(12) Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).
(13) Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians, Ibid., 24.
(14) Nouwen, Ibid., 9.
(15) Ibid., 21.

What Does Spiritual Progress Look Like?

Written by Steven Barto, B.S.,Psy., M.A. Theology

Change Requires Growth

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14, ESV).

NOT SURPRISINGLY GROWTH requires action. Acts 17:28 indicates we must be “in Christ” to mature as believers: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (ESV). Our growth as Christians is predicated upon knowing who we are in Christ; what His death, burial, and resurrection makes accessible to us. Having made a decision to accept Jesus as Messiah, we are to choose living in a manner that brings glory to God. No longer are we wandering the wilderness in search of meaning and purpose. We begin a new life, made possible through Jesus Christ. Fundamentally, we have been justified in the Father’s eyes. Redemption opens the door for reconciliation, restoration, and sanctification. Each of these components fall under the umbrella of “salvation.” It is here that we are able to adjust our sites and head in a completely different direction than when we were living in sin.

Holiness in the Old Testament is primarily in relation to God. “Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy” (Psa. 99:9). Divine sacredness and holiness is God’s essential nature. He is morally perfect, and His holiness is manifest in total purity. By purposeful association, God’s people are holy; not because of any virtue they possess but simply by God’s special calling. Notwithstanding the above, there was an increasingly strong emphasis on moral holiness under the Old Covenant. A central feature of the Day of Atonement was inward cleansing (see Lev. 16:30). Of course, there is no less emphasis on God’s holiness in the New Testament. Under the New Covenant, holiness moves from an outward (or “corporate”) quality to believers made holy inwardly. As Christians, we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, but we must strive to enter into true holiness (see Heb. 10:10). This is holiness as it pertains to transformation. Paul writes, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).

This is what Paul wrote about in his letter to the Romans: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (Rom. 1:16-17). Our progress must begin with redemption—without which we cannot be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Spiritual progress is intricately linked with sanctification. It is through sanctification that we become more like Christ, aligning ourselves with the will of the Father. God is able to accomplish His will in us as we mature in our Christian walk. The Hebrew word qdš and the Greek word hagias apply to any person, place, occasion, or object that has been “set apart” from common secular use to a divine purpose. Sanctification is the ongoing impact of the Holy Spirit in our lives as believers (1).

Sanctification is not mere moral transformation (we cannot “behave” ourselves toward holiness). We are set on the path of sanctification through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. This is a sort of spiritual “athleticism,” which denotes aiming for fitness of service; i.e., being worthy of one’s call. Amazingly, sanctification sets the stage for positive consecration of our personality (2). (Personality refers to individual differences in patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.) It is easy to confuse holiness and sanctification. However, holiness represents purity before God, as in our being clothed in the righteous of Christ. Through the atonement of Christ’s death, we are justified and set apart for service. But sanctification is much more than being made right in the eyes of the Father; it includes God being able to accomplish His will in us as we mature in Christ. What of this idea of “sinless perfection.” Paul discusses putting on the new self in the third chapter of Colossians, which is accomplished by setting our minds on things that are above and not on things of the earth (3:2). He writes, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (3:5). Instead, as God’s chosen ones, we are to put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. God does not require perfection from us, but He does expect us to strive for spiritual maturity.

A New Starting Point

Through sanctification, our character, affections, and behavior change as we put on the mind of Christ. Sanctification includes a change in our total personal ethics. Of course, this is an ongoing process. At the moment of conversion we surrender self-rule. In sanctification, we relinquish what I call the habitual, premeditated practice of sin. We are bound to fail, but we need not feel condemned. Paul addresses this issue: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 7:24-25; 8:1). The doctrine of justification by faith is an analytical explanation of God’s pardon. Justification establishes Christianity as a religion of grace and faith. It is helpful to remember that dying with Christ (redemption and justification) and living with Christ (sanctification) are both paramount to living according to the will of God.

We are to wean ourselves from worldly pleasures and pursue godliness. Paul said we must strive for spiritual perfection “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 fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:13-14). Although redemption is instantaneous, sanctification is an ongoing process. The more we strive to be like Christ, the easier it becomes to deny the flesh and instead walk in the Spirit. I have learned that as I mature in Christ my sins become more painful and obvious. The Holy Spirit convicts me regarding any ungodly behavior. Because sin starts as a thought, I also ask Him to help me think about what I am thinking about. (This is called metacognition in psychology.) Paul said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2).

Peter writes, “…preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:13-16). Because our mind is the battlefield on which Satan wages war, it is important to be prepared for warfare. (see The Power of Spiritual Armor.) Sanctification is the first step. Hebrews 12:14 says we must strive for holiness. White says, “This is the most common understanding of sanctification, the growth in holiness that should follow conversion” (see Eph. 1:4) (3). Paul told the Thessalonians to be sanctified wholly—keeping spirit, soul, and body sound and blameless. Everything is to be sanctified (see 1 Tim. 4:4-5). White notes that sanctification is not a mere addendum to justification and redemption. Rather, he believes our forgiveness of sins has a moral force, creating in us the will to do good. Paul distinguished his “real” or spiritual self from his fleshly self in Romans 7. Henry writes, “Compared with the holy rule of conduct in the law of God, the apostle [Paul] found himself so very far short of perfection, that he seemed to be carnal” (4).

Progress Not Perfection

Clearly, our goal as Christians is striving to live a life that is beyond reproach. Remember, this does not imply living a sinless existence, which is impossible. Instead, we are to avoid the habitual, premeditated practice of sin. Habitual sin relates to a temptation we have chosen to hang on to, ostensibly because it brings us some degree of pleasure or escape. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught us about brokenness, selflessness, charity, humility, peace, and righteousness (see Matt. 5). He reminds us that we are to be salt and light in the world. Jesus concluded his sermon with these words: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). The beatitudes describe the Father’s attributes. Jesus instructs us to strive for a Christian life that mimics the character of God. The Amplified Bible says, “You, therefore, will be perfect [growing into spiritual maturity both in mind and character, actively integrating godly values into your daily life], as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Paul instructs us to walk in a manner worthy of the life to which we have been called, doing so with all humility, gentleness, patience, love, peace, and mercy, bearing with one another. Spiritual maturity involves putting off “the old self” and putting on the new, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (see Eph. 4). When we become Christians, we are not merely “remodeled” or added to. Instead, we are transformed. In other words, we don’t have two separate natures as Christians. We have one new nature—that of Christ our Lord. Our old self died on the cross with Christ, and through the resurrection we have become new. When the Father looks upon us, He no longer sees our multitude of sins. Instead, he sees the righteousness of Christ. Paul said, “…you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). We are to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (see Eph. 4:24).

And Now What?

How do we accomplish the daunting task of putting on the mind of Christ? We need to realize that God is not expecting us to become Christ or to live perfectly. Rather, our lifestyle should point others to Christ. We must think differently about sin, about God, and about Jesus. Our orientation should be away from worldly and sinful lusts. As believers, we should not be attracted to evils of this world. John said, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16). MacArthur writes, “To say that a person can come to Christ without making a break from the world is a lie. There must be a change of lifestyle” (5). We come to Jesus through repentance, but it is sanctification that allows us to serve Him. We are to be imitators of Christ (see Eph. 5:1). Conversion includes renewal of mind and heartfelt repentance. These elements are needed if we are to do a 180 and walk away from sin. It is dependent on grace, and involves the infusion of new life. Evangelical theologians describe two sides to conversion: the divine invitation and the human response. It is the means by which we are resurrected from spiritual death. Bloesch says, “It also includes the Spirit’s continuing work in purifying us of discord and [our stubborn refusal to comply], remolding us in Christ’s image” (6).

Spiritual maturity is an expected result of conversion. In fact, conversion begins our ascent to Christian perfection. We shall not remain the same person we once were, but shall become a new creation (se 1 Cor. 5:17). Our true relationship with God is made evident in our lifestyle and conduct. This is what is meant by having a heart for God; getting God out of our heads and into our hearts. Peter tells us, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (1 Pet. 1:3-4). He followed up with an admonishment to “…put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:1-3).

Concluding Remarks

We are called upon to be mature believers in Christ. This is not possible without learning who we are in Him and walking accordingly. Redemption opens the door for reconciliation, restoration, and sanctification. Sanctification sets the stage for radical change, even to the core of our personality. We are set on the path of spiritual maturity. Although we cannot hope to be perfect while in our corruptible bodies, we are expected to strive for spiritual maturity. Jesus gives us a glimpse of the character of God in His sermon on the mount. Meekness, brokenness, humility, purity of heart, righteousness—these and other attributes are provided as a guide to becoming “perfect” as the Father is perfect. Paul instructs us to wean ourselves from worldly pleasures and pursue godliness, which is critical to our spiritual maturity. We can never become Christ, but we are called to emulate His life and ministry. This is how we become salt and light to the world. It is how we strive for spiritual maturity.

References

(1) R.E.O. White, “Sanctification,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 771.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1077.
(5) John MacArthur, The Truth About the Lordship of Christ (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 77.
(6) D.G. Bloesch, “Conversion” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Ibid., 213.

The Gluttony of Our Appetites: Part Two

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

WHEN IT COMES TO appetites, we must be able to choose. To allow our appetites to choose for us is the hallmark of obsession and addiction. Mastery over our appetites is not out of reach, but it often feels that way while in the grips of an active addiction or compulsion. Christians who struggle with addiction are caught in a tug-of-war between the pleasures and comforts of the flesh and the desire of the spirit to find peace, meaning, temperance, and freedom. The results of walking according to the flesh are self-evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these (see Gal. 5:19-21). It is possible to desire the fruit of the Spirit over the lusts of the flesh, yet remain unable to change your focus from flesh to spirit.

One reason the trap of active addiction is so difficult to escape is we have allowed our appetites to become idols to us. We have served them rather than God. Our need for instant gratification outweighs the harms our addictions cause our bodies. We compound the situation by making excuses for our bad behavior. It’s not our fault, we cry. We do everything in our power to avoid taking any personal responsibility, blaming anyone we can. We live our lives based on rationalization. There is a line in the movie The Big Chill that I’ve always loved. One of the friends says, “Oh, that’s nothing but a rationalization!” The character played by Jeff Goldblum says, “Don’t knock rationalizations. They’re better than sex.” When someone takes issue with this statement, Goldblum adds, “Oh yeah, try going a week without one.” Blaming others doesn’t absolve us from responsibilities, and neither does making excuses.

My struggle was the same as Paul describes in Romans 7. I did not want to keep doing what I was doing. Moreover, I could not seem to do the good I wanted to do. Paul admitted his struggle. I, on the other hand, could not. I remained convinced that my excuses were good enough to make my choices okay. You’d use drugs too if you had my childhood. Parrot writes, “We shop, we drink, we eat; we do anything and everything to distract ourselves from the pain of feeling alone” (1). It took me a great deal of time and effort to finally see the invisible strings tied to my feelings, playing me like a marionette. Any present-day situation that reminded me of something from my past triggered an overwhelming emotion that had more to do with then than now. I read a statement in a book on Buddhism some time ago that still rings true for me today: If you do not deal with the emotional baggage of your past, your present behaviors are not so much undertaken by you as they are driven by the past.

We blame the person who sold us the drugs, the pharmaceutical companies who made the drugs, the bartender who continued to serve us when we were obviously drunk. We blame our parents. Certainly, no other relationship shapes who we are more than our family. Most of what we think, feel, say, and do is in response to the home we grew up in. On the conscious level, we either buy into or reject the lessons learned from family. We absorb ways of thinking, feeling, and being. Either way, we cannot escape its influence. But, as Parrot puts it, “You can’t afford to be like a rider on a runaway horse. Even if you feel out of control, you have everything you need to take the reins and determine your own destiny. You’re not helpless. And you are not simply a product of the way you were raised. From here on out, the kind of person you’ll be is a matter of perseverance, not parenting” (2) [italics added]. In other words, no matter what kind of family background you had, chronic resentment and blame will only further entrench the negative qualities you’d like to escape. Don’t be caught up in the blame game.

When Satan reminds you of your past, just remind him of his future.

It is crucial that we forgive those whom we believe have caused us harm. We must forgive as the LORD has forgiven us (see Col. 3:13). If we have any hope of being forgiven by those we’ve harmed by our bad behavior, we must learn to forgive others. We have to put our pride aside and face the pain of how our choices, behaviors, and word have negatively impacted the lives of those around us. Arterburn writes, “If you hope to make peace with your appetites, you must realize that you are responsible for yourself, your choices, the consequences of those choices, and seeking the help necessary to change” (3). There is no one else we should blame for the problems we face today. Regardless of our background, childhood experiences, or current situation, as adults we are responsible for ourselves and how we choose to live. Moreover, there is no one else who can make these changes for us. Any change that you hope to make must be made by you and accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As Christians, we tend to forget we have access to the power of the Holy Spirit living within us. It is God’s Spirit that fuels regeneration, and it is God’s Spirit that provides for our sanctification. Jesus told the disciples, “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-26). When we accept Christ as our LORD and Savior, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, we forget what this means for our lives. Paul writes, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13-14). Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, we receive wisdom, power, encouragement, and strength as we battle the enemy. The fruit of this presence in our lives includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (see Gal. 5:22-23). Having been crucified with Christ, we are no longer under the authority of sin or Satan (Gal. 5:24; 1 John 2:14; James 4:7).

Our appetites will naturally grow out of control when we focus on ourselves and our wants. We become obsessed with our own needs and desires; self-indulgent and self-centered; intent on pleasing ourselves instead of God or others. Developing a sense of purpose is a critical first step; it involves asking what we can do for the greater good of society. Contributing to society in a positive manner takes our focus off of self. Twelve-step programs call this “getting out of your own head.” Discovering our purpose in life helps improve our self-esteem and find true meaning for our existence. Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” Consider the four great questions man asks himself: Where did I come from? Why am I here? What is the basis for good and evil? Where am I going when I die.

When we are growing spiritually, the fruit of the Spirit becomes very appealing to us. We come to understand that only this fruit will truly satisfy our appetites. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we have less desire to be filled with the lusts of the flesh. This is why Paul writes, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).

Amazingly, the same temptations we face were presented by Satan to Jesus in the wilderness: the appetite for food (Matt. 4:2-30); the appetite for status and prestige (4:5-6); the appetite for power and control (4:8-9). We have three choices available to us as we take on the temptation of our out-of-control appetites. First, we can respond by giving in to the flesh. Second, we can use rationalization or intellectualizing to excuse our fleshly responses. Third, we can respond with the wisdom and power we have through the Holy Spirit. Remarkably, God is not telling us to eliminate all desire. Rather, we are told “…delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psa. 37:4).

References

(1) Les and Leslie Parrot, Real Relationships: From Bad to Better and Good to Great (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 21.
(2) Parrot, Ibid., 57.
(3) Stephen Arterburn, Feeding Your Appetites: Take Control of What’s Controlling You (Nashville, TN: Integrity Publishers, 2004), 49.

Grove of Trees

You said that all of this was yours;

through Your spoken word, the water came;

at your request, land arose. You called up trees.

All this, where I sit and ponder,

is proof: Your words create life and wonder.

As I look about, everywhere, I see Your hand.

Man might be Your grandest work, but there’s

so much more in the seas, in the air, in the dirt.

Who am I to question whether the caterpillar

crawling on my shoe, or the mosquito,

or the cockroach, are part of your plan?

Bugs bite, I itch, and I question

the need for such bother.

My father told me all is of the food chain;

this is true of every creature, every organism.

I sit under this canopy of countless leaves

and I realize that You, God, designed this world

from the very smallest of cells

to this grove of trees.

© 2016 Steven Barto

My Prayer About Selfishness

Father God,

When I come before You,
I dutifully pay lip service
to how awesome You are,

but I must admit that
what I am really interested in is me.
I acknowledge Your sovereignty because
I want “things” from You—lots of things.
I want You to bless me—
to make my life easier and, most of all,
to rubber stamp my will as Your own.

Many of my prayers focus on
what You can do for me, not
how I can know You better.
This is my truth
and I need to be aware of it.
I wish I were a better,
more selfless person.
I wish I had more character than I do.
Admitting the truth embarrasses me,
but You know my heart.
Help me become who
You need me to be.
Continue making changes in me,
never to be the same.

I want to seek You for who You are
rather than for what You can do for me.
Give me a heart that yearns for
knowledge and wisdom instead. Teach me
to look beyond my limited world.
Develop in me a heart of compassion.

Without you, I see my selfishness,
ever before me, never receding;
but I am a new creature

inside and out. You are
changing me, helping me to
become a better version of myself;
a child worthy of Your name.
Let this be what motivates me and
defines me.

© 2021 Steven Barto