Singing a worship chorus slowly and meditatively, I muse about our role in the infilling of the Spirit. What? Our role? Surely God is sovereign and does what he pleases. We can’t have anything to do with the Spirit’s coming can we?
Yes we can and do! We are high beings with the God-like capacity of rationality. We can direct our minds wherever we choose. And when we choose to think about the Spirit’s quality i.e. the Goodness, we direct ourselves to the shoreline of heaven.
Through this process of using my mind in prayer to think about God’s Love, I tentatively walk out upon the water and sense that a meeting is taking place. God is calling me to cooperate with him in some way.
I reach out and receive; I take what is being offered, the Goodness. And I must take. God doesn’t do it all. He waits for me. I must stretch out in faith.
As the Spirit comes, the tension smooths out. I may confidently embrace the Spirit’s essence, the Christ of God. Jesus’ sacrifice makes me worthy now. I don’t have to be afraid anymore. I am a high being and able to interact even with the Creator. I breathe in peace.
Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Saviour
In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol we’re introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge, a man “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” Individuality becomes pathological when taken to extreme. We’re made for love and love requires a community where we find others to love. Nevertheless, the spiritual life begins alone and requires a regular return to solitude if it’s to flourish.
We have been considering the self as a contained space, a city that is to be enclosed within walls (Prov. 25:28). Last time we heard Jesus speaking of the self as a house. He says he stands at its door knocking, waiting for an invitation to come in. Once we’ve opened the door and embraced the presence of Jesus, he promises to eat with us. That is, he promises an intimate, satisfying experience such as good friends enjoy around a dinner table. God invites us to a delicious fellowship, firstly with him alone–a fellowship in which we come to know the unique, particular love God has for us personally. Without that experience we will not truly love others. Jesus’ certainty of this kind of relationship with his Heavenly father gave him the ability to love the disciples right to the bitter end (John 13:1).
Therefore, once we invite Jesus inside, he directs us to close the door, at times, to everything and everyone else. “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mat. 6:6). Today it is increasingly difficult to slam the door as hundreds of ads, demands and other distractions try to pry their way into our inner world daily. However, If we don’t find this “secret place,” we’re not likely to enjoy our spiritual life a whole lot.
I was taught that inviting Jesus inside means that he comes into the deepest part of me. He is there whether I feel him or not. While that is true, when I come to believe that Jesus dwells in me beyond my conscious mind, my expectation of meaningful interaction with him can fade. Something in me begins to believe I can’t really experience his presence and I end up living with an empty place at the table. It is as though I have opened the door to Jesus, but then bade him go straight to the basement until I summon him in time of need.
To be sure, there is great value in knowing that Jesus lives in the deepest part of me whether I sense him or not. This assurance encourages me during times when I feel distant from God. However, if it morphs into a life of always feeling distant from God something is drastically wrong. He’s deep down in the basement and I’m not even really sure which room he’s in. I don’t go there much anyway.
The idea of Jesus in my innermost being is pretty much inaccessible to me in daily life. What I do know, however, is that meeting Jesus in other rooms within my house is something eminently practical. I can invite him into my ordinary thought life and decisions. When I get anxious because of my job or my family or my health I can go, as it were, to the kitchen where Jesus waits for me to share my concerns with him over a cup of tea. When I have conflict with someone, I can invite Jesus to pace back and forth with me in the living room as I wrestle with how I can overcome my anger. In the family room, I can give thanks for the enjoyment of family and the company of friends.
If we shut the door to be with God alone, Jesus says the Father will reward us. If this has anything to do with some great position of power, as some Christians allege, it does so only incidentally. It is not God’s power but his love that woos us. His presence is all the reward we need (Gen. 15;1).
“Father, we long for that intimate fellowship with you. We’re amazed that you long for communion with us too! Help us to be faithful in shutting the door to all that is outside. May we learn to experience the great love which you have for each one of us individually. Then we will be able to fulfill your heart’s desire of loving others as Jesus loves us. In his name, we pray. Amen.”
In this series we have been examining one of the most fundamental things that makes us human, the ability to step back into our own inner world and make decisions free from external pressures. This amazing power remains intact despite the most extreme pressures as we see in the life of the Anabaptist, Mattheus Mair, who was martyred in Baden, Germany on July 27, 1592. After six days of imprisonment, during which the priests tried in vain to convert him, he was drowned. Three or four times the executioner pulled him out of the water to ask him whether he would recant, but he refused as long as he could speak.
Mattheus Mair’ ability to make his own choices in the face of unimaginable fear and suffering illustrates how no one can take this freedom from us. On the other hand we sometimes find ourselves feeling like we’re not free to make even very small decisions (Rom. 7:15-25). We decide not to gossip or eat another chocolate bar and then go right ahead and do it anyway. How can this be?
No one can take our God-given freedom from us, but we can give it away as we saw last time in the life of Samson. There must be some secret whereby we go from being a spiritual weakling to a Mattheus Mair superhero of faith. Scripture pictures the strong human self as an ancient city protected from enemies by impregnable walls. It says that if we relinquish control over ourselves, we become weak and vulnerable like a city without walls. It is God who gives spiritual strength, but clearly, we have a role to play. We must build the walls and we too decide to whom we open the gates.
God designs this inner city to have the kind of power we see in the life of Mattheus Mair if, and only if, there are two residents in it–ourselves and God. We see this throughout the New Testament, for example, in the concept of the indwelling Spirit, the One who lives inside us. And here too, we retain control. Jesus graciously waits for us to open the door and invite him in. William Holman Hunt made a famous painting to illustrate Jesus’ statement that he was standing at the door of our hearts knocking. Hunt was asked if he hadn’t made a mistake because there is no handle on the outside of the door. Hunt said, no, that was deliberate. Jesus waits for us to open to him from the inside.
And just as Jesus doesn’t break down the door to get in, neither does he dominate us once inside. He doesn’t drive. His voice is not harsh and insistent like that of the enemy. When we make room for God in this sacred space, there is room! There is time–to think, to reflect, to decide what we really want.
Furthermore, contrary to the view of some, God is NOT always there to tell us what to do. Some Christians instinctively resist opening up their inner real estate to God because they seem to have a master-puppet conception of our relationship with God. If we were ever to be truly in tune with God, they imagine, we would just be obeying one command after another. His unceasing demands would crowd out our inner space completely. There would be no room to reflect and make decisions. Life would be one long oppressive succession of duties. In other words, we somehow believe that if we make room for God, there will be no room at all!
Some Christian teaching has perpetuated this unappealing view of the human being with what has been dubbed worm theology– “I’m so bad God must just want me for a boot-licking lackey. I’m so useless all I can do is take orders.” You remember that was exactly what the Prodigal Son thought after he’d taken his father’s money and blown it living a wild life with prostitutes and other disreputable people. All he could conceive was that the father might want him back as a slave. However, his father would hear none of it and immediately restored him to sonship. The love of his father heart overwhelmed any feelings of disappointment. He “had to celebrate and rejoice” because his lost son was found.
It is this image of God as father that really allows things to become clear. No matter how good he may be, no one is drawn to an overbearing father who smothers them at every turn with his demands. God has created in us the powerful desire to make up our own minds, to be able to create, not just take orders. When God created the animals, he didn’t tell Adam what to name them. Rather God brought them to Adam to see what he would name them! When we invite Jesus in, rather than simply tell us what to do all the time, he comes alongside us and makes suggestions, “Wouldn’t the relationship with your wife go a lot better if you held your tongue in situations like this?” When we ask him what he thinks we should do, he might throw it back on us, “What do you think you should do?” He appeals to our higher self. He trusts us more than we trust ourselves.
Many of you will know the story of the tragic figure, Samson, the biblical character whose prodigious strength could defeat whole armies. Samson, however, also had a prodigious weakness–an attraction to foxy Philistine women. One of them, Delilah, asks him three times for the secret of his strength and three times he gives her a false answer. Each time she tells the Philistines, but when they try out what Samson has said, he breaks free.
The fourth time Delilah asks, Samson tells her the truth that lies behind his great strength–he has never cut his hair. Sure enough, while he’s asleep, Delilah lops off his hair, the Philistines attack, blind him and put him in prison. How, when Delilah has told the Philistines the other three answer, could Samson be so stupid as to tell her the real secret the fourth time?
I believe the answer has to do with what I wrote about in my last post–the human ability to step back and reflect before taking action. As we delve deeper into the story, it appears that Samson lost this inner space which in turn led to his tragic downfall.
First, let’s look at a Hebrew word, mezimmah, that is sometimes used for this planning or decision-making faculty. One commentator describes it as “the capacity for private, hidden thought”–space for freedom and creativity. We all have it and we can use it either positively or negatively. In the latter case, mezimmah is translated evil devices or wicked schemes (e.g. Psa.37:7). The manipulative individual steps back into his own thoughts and schemes how he might get his way. On the other hand, mezimmah can be positive at which times biblical translators use words such as discretion or prudence (e.g. Prov. 2:11). Wise people step back and choose paths that are good, peaceable, loving and healthy.
In the Bible spaciousness is seen as a blessing from God and when we invite God into our inner world, he increases the space inside for free, uninhibited thought. Conversely, shutting God out reduces it. The NIV’s usage of mezimmah in Psalm 10:4 illustrates the power we have to decrease this space. “In his pride the wicked man does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.” Only when we make room for God in our thoughts will we ultimately have this wonderful sense of freedom. He is the One who created us with the precious ability to choose and he wants us to have it. He doesn’t want this capacity minimized by unruly passions or desires, fears, stress, anxiety, pressures from other people or anything else.
This brings us back to Samson who stands out in the Bible as someone whose lust for illicit sexual relationships crowded out his capacity for rational thought. As he gave himself over to Delilah, his thought-life became breached. Here’s the description of the beginning of Samson’s end when he tells Delilah his secret. “It came about when she pressed him daily with her words and urged him, that his soul was annoyed to death. So he told her all that was in his heart. . .” (Judges 16:16,17a).
The Hebrew word translated pressed is often used for what an enemy does to a city as it lays siege to it. It is also translated constrain, bring distress, oppress. Delilah besieged Samson. She bombarded him with her words and she did it relentlessly until he was hemmed in, “annoyed to death.” The word translated annoyed means to be inadequate or to not have enough of. The literal meaning is to be short as when a bed is not long enough to be comfortable. Delilah pressed in upon Samson until he ran out of inner room.
Samson had a history of involvement with prostitutes and other inappropriate relationships. As he continued to give himself over to illicit sexual pleasure, he opened himself up to a relentless spiritual onslaught. The turmoil thus experienced robbed him of space for reflective thinking. He lost the ability to make a rational decision.
Samson vividly illustrates Prov. 25:28, “Like a city that is broken into and without walls Is a man who has no control over his spirit. In our next post we’ll take a look at the “door” of the city and to whom we’re to open it.
In the previous post, I spoke of the Bible’s audacious claim that human beings are created in the image of God. Whatever progress I make in understanding that statement comes to a screeching halt the moment I take a good look at myself. When I consider God’s others-centered love, the contrast with my deep-rooted self-centeredness hits me like a brick wall. At the suggestion I be like Jesus, I become a small boy on a hike whose path leads straight to the foot of a 300 foot vertical cliff that somehow I must scale.
The first step in beginning the climb is understanding that this sense of utter helplessness comes about precisely because I am created in God’s image! I’m speaking of our ability to step back and think about our circumstances, in this instance to reflect on how far I am from God’s nature. Animals, whose instincts drive them on, can’t do this. We humans, on the other hand, have an amazing power to stop, consider our situation and decide on our course of action. Many men on the Titanic, for example, chose to reject the powerful instinct of self-preservation and allowed women and children to get into the lifeboats while they faced certain death.
The principle of being able to step back from reality and choose our destiny under-girds the entire Bible. Old Testament leaders such as Elijah and Joshua exhort the Israelites to “choose this day” whether they will serve God or not (1Kings 18:21;Jos. 24:15). The prophet, Joel, saw, “multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision” (Joel 3:14). Billy Graham understood this truth with crystal clarity. Decision became the watchword of his ministry. He had a radio program called Hour of Decision, his magazine was simply called Decision Magazine and, of course, virtually every message he preached climaxed with a call for men and women to decide for Christ.
This incredible power of reflection, however, only reaches its full potential when we combine it with the reality of God’s presence. That is, we can step back from the current situation and reflect, but we can do it in two ways. We can think by ourselves or we can invite God to join us in our deliberations. We can go into abstraction or we can come into relationship. The difference is monumental. Alone, in the hollow halls of my own head, I eventually suffer an anguished emptiness. Reflecting with an upward glance to Jesus, I have better, higher quality ideas which lead to a sense of contented fullness.
The Bible specifically teaches us this principle when, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, God says, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. (Jer 6:16). The crossroads, of course, is the place where we step back and choose which way we will go. The verse gives us two profound insights. Firstly, when we are faced with a decision, rather than merely think about it by ourselves, stop and pray. Ask God what we should do. Think about what he might want us do.
Secondly, ask for the good way. This is the secret for so many who feel they never hear from God. “The Lord’s goodness and mercy endure forever.” To hear God speak, we must understand his language and, simply put, it is love. “God is love.” So ask God, ask yourself, “Where do I see God’s goodness most clearly? What’s the most loving thing I can do in this terrible work situation? How can I show graciousness to this troublesome individual? What career will give me the best opportunity to do good?” It’s surprising then how often we’re inspired by better thoughts than our own.
So every time you’re discouraged by the wall of your own self-centeredness, realize that you’re at a divine place–the crossroads. You have the power to choose! Because you’re like God, you have an opportunity to mold your own destiny. It doesn’t matter how often you seemed to have come up short, “it’s never too late to make a right decision!” You can step back; you can give an upward glance; you can look for the good way and see what God will do!
Back in the late 60s you would often hear people speaking about the need to “find yourself.” An incident involving a friend of mine and a university professor highlighted my desperate need to do just exactly that. We were in the office of my friend’s former professor visiting. After they chatted for a few minutes, the professor turned to me and said, “And so Andrew, who are you?” The question threw me off. In a flippant manner I started to recount my biography, “I attended Riverside Public School in London. . . ,” but after only a few seconds I found a lump of fear in my stomach and I couldn’t speak. My friend and the professor stared at me wondering what was going on. The professor asked, “Do you not like me?” He was befuddled. We all were. “Who are you?” a simple question, but an obvious and painful revelation that I didn’t know.
You may not have an experience as dramatic (or fearful) as me, but have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and wondered who am I? “Where did I come from?” is a natural question for the simple reason that we didn’t make ourselves. More to the point, as a Christian, who do you conceive yourself to be? What do you feel yourself to be? Are you a glorious being created in the image of God or a sinner saved by grace?
The question is of the utmost practical importance for we will never grow beyond the vision we have of ourselves. Let me illustrate with a story. A Wisconsin farmer walking early in the season in his pumpkin patch sees a bottle lying on the ground. He carefully inserts one of the tiny, young pumpkins into the bottle so as to not damage the vine and puts it back on the ground. In the fall when he returns he finds the pumpkin is no bigger than the bottle which it has perfectly filled.
If all we conceive ourselves to be is a “sinner saved by grace,” that’s all we’ll ever be. Too often we focus on the negative side of our beings because we’re all too aware of our shortcomings, “the carnal self.” However, there is an older, original self that pulsates with the heartbeat of God. We were born in sin, that is, in some mysterious sense we were “in Adam” when he sinned. However, the whole truth is that we were also “in him” when he was created a glorious being! Your true self, at the core, is full of wonder, the very reflection of the divine!
The Gospel message proclaims that because of what Jesus has done, we can now consider the old self yesterday’s news (Rom. 6:11). The only thing that matters anymore is the new glorious self (Gal. 6:15) which is in fact God’s original!
May we keep in mind these powerful and beautiful words from Max Lucado, “Your life emerged from the greatest mind and kindest heart in the history of the universe.”