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

Can I Be Real?

Can I be real
just for a moment?
(If I linger I might
start hating myself
all over again.)
I stand before you,
a boyfriend, but
not a partner,
appealing to
your kinder side.

You reach for me,
seemingly annoyed
but not meaning
to endanger
our entanglement.
We wallow in
our emotions—
they seem to form
who we are when
together.

We don’t know how to
be apart. From
the start
there was nothing
other than us;
no such thing as apart.
(Your mother
said you were
addicted to me.)

I try to stand
proud
when you approach,
but I feel “less than”
next to
you.
No alpha male, I
shrink in your
presence, crushed by
a superiority
you cannot not help but
ooze.
Booze is my
liquid courage.


I write, but I cannot
(even with all my might)
measure up to the
abilities of others.
I could never
be the writer
you are. I’m unable
to see what you
see.
I can’t push my
feelings up from
deep within my gut,
down my arm,
into my hands
and fingers,
onto the page.


I am not capable of
translation like you are.
I know the language,
and can grunt a
word or two, but I
fail to
get the words out
at the same intensity
I feel them
inside.

Tragic in a way.
It’s as if the one thing
I do best,
to feel,
is not enough.
Maybe writing
is just not
for me.
No one wants to
read about worms
eating at my heart,
feeding on my
desire
for life or about
gnats buzz
in my head,
distracting me from
my deeper thoughts.

So, no, I
won’t write.
I’ll let storytelling and
prose and poetry and
activities of expression
such as these to
you,
the real writer.

© 2017, 2021 Steven Barto

On Becoming Wise

There is what I know―
the scope of things
in my head.
There is what I have
yet to know.
Ultimately, though,
There is what I don’t
know that
I don’t know―
the unasked and
the unanswered.

Judgment is
born from experience―
the benefit
of becoming wise and
sophisticated; schooled
and familiar with
what is true and
what is lore.
It is on this
that I can base
the soundness
of an action or decision.

©2021 Steven Barto

Unbreakable Fragility

By Tim McGee

The more I discover you,
the less I can  ignore—
or claim ignorance of what you ask.

You say to “Follow my commands”

You call me to meekness,
living in humility;
to die to myself—
so as to become holy, perfect.

You say to “Love one another”

You offer more than commands.
You lived among us,
showed us your way—
revealing to us that love is sacrifice.

You say to “Be strong and courageous”

True strength comes when I let go. 
Against the fragility of a shattered ego—
no weapon can prosper.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: The Poor in Spirit

The following is from the third discussion assignment in Christian Ethics in pursuit of my M.A. in Theological Studies. We were instructed to apply the authority of Scripture to one of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

I chose blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matt. 5:3). I decided to expound on this beatitude because it speaks about a rather challenging yet rewarding state of mind: being satisfied with what you have. Jesus requires us to share the good things we have. “Poor in spirit” requires a humble heart. I also see an element of acceptance in this beatitude; it requires humility and seeing yourself as you are.

The Book of Matthew features excitement, expectation, exasperation, discouragement, disappointment, despair, and brokenness. Quite a range. Christ was speaking to a multitude about spiritual tenets that still apply today. Matthew Henry comments on verses one and two as follows: “None will find happiness in this world or the next, who do not seek it from Christ by the rule of his word”(1). Christ’s beatitudes represent the principal graces a Christian should possess (2).

I have chosen as my subject my former boss and owner of the motel I ran a few years ago. He focused on himself in every situation. Long-term guests who ran into a financial emergency and could not pay their weekly rent on time were typically given until noon the following day to come up with the money or I had to evict them. His usual response to their circumstances would be, “I am not a bank or a loan office,” or “This is not a social services agency.” He routinely failed to provide basic needs for the motel, especially new sheet sets and pillows. I often purchased them and submitted the receipts, hoping for reimbursement.

He was recently served with a notice stating the motel was “unfit for human habitation.” Notices were placed on the door to each room and in the front door of the motel office. Yet he ignored the ruling, did not make guests vacate their rooms, and instructed his current manager to continue renting rooms. According to a local newspaper, he has been charged with obstructing the administration of law, aiding consummation of a crime, and creating a public nuisance.

Christian ethics is about making appropriate Christ-like decisions in our everyday lives, with a full understanding of the consequences of our actions. For me, Christianity provides a comprehensive, universal system of morality. Deontology (rules and duty) was breached in the subject I have described above. My boss failed to display a good moral intent and chose to ignore the rules and regulations governing his obligations to the motel and its guests. Rather, he demonstrated egoism—his self-interest was the motivation and goal for his actions. Such a man tends to use his innate sense of right and wrong, but he does so according to his intuition, which he said comes from “over 30 years in the hospitality business.” His moral judgments, which are based on emotivism and are not grounded in statements of fact; rather, they are expressions of his own sense of morality, rooted in egoism.

Scripture sets proper parameters for ethical business conduct. We are not to oppress our neighbor or rob him (Lev. 19:13). We should not cheat anyone in business deals (Deut. 25:13-16). We are to be generous, freely helping others in need of financial assistance. We should conduct our affairs with justice (Psa. 112:5). It is my position that my boss should have provided for the needs of motel guests. Those who are poor in spirit ideally hold a lowly and humble awareness of their condition. They work at improving their situation in the spirit of humility, sharing what they have with others.

Poor of spirit resonates with me because of my dark years of egoism and addiction. Not only is “poor of spirit” predicated upon seeing yourself as you truly are at present, recovery from active addiction requires first becoming humble and painfully honest about your character defects, denial, and predicament. Our First Parents lost the ability to see themselves as “creatures,” desiring instead to become gods of their own morality and destiny. I like Ravi Zacharias’ comment that when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and partake of the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they lost the vertical (heavenward orientation) in exchange for the horizontal. They chose to look within rather that to God.

Egoism is grounded in hubris. It is the very opposite of lowliness of spirit. Moral decisions grounded in ego tend to spawn relativism. The pluralist denies absolute truth regarding theology, ethics, and the like, stating that all beliefs are acceptable: “You do you and I’ll do me.” We hope to make commendable choices in life, but what of the emotional element of ethical decisions? Are emotions helpful in ethical choices? Or should we be cold, calculating, and rational?

Emotion versus reason is one of the oldest arguments we know. Cognitive meaning is based on true or false, whereas emotions do not lead to such valuation. Well, empirically at least. If we allow emotions to dominate our ethics, we risk moral valuation that is either caused or constituted by affect. This has been identified by some philosophers in ethics as moral or ethical judgment lacking in statement of facts. It typically involves an expression of the speaker’s personal feelings about a subject. When we go down this road in philosophy or religion, we are suggesting a worldview based on relativism.

Footnotes

(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Henry, Inc., 1997), 864.

(2) Ibid, 864.