Spiritual Formation

When Mainline Christians Spoke in Tongues

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I became a Christian during the Charismatic Renewal in the early ‘70s when God poured out his Spirit in a way that we haven’t seen since in the ensuing four plus decades. People from every denomination experienced this outpouring along with manifestations such as prophecy, healing and speaking in tongues. Old Testament prophetic scriptures burst into our consciousness and thrilled us with “the” promise:

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
Joel 2:28-29

And it happened! When I walked into Catacombs, a mid-week meeting at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Toronto, a blast of heaven enveloped me as though I had entered a furnace of glory. God had descended. His presence filled the temple. Many hundreds of people all felt it together. During Full Gospel Businessmen’s meetings at the Royal Connaught Hotel in Hamilton two or three thousand people would gently begin to sing spontaneous praises unto God. The volume gradually increased as individual voices blended into one heavenly sound lifting our attention higher and higher–to Jesus, the baptizer with the Holy Spirit. No one wanted to leave. Lives changed forever. 

Gradually, however, darkness began to cloud the light. We seemed to forget the nature of the Spirit we were receiving. People began to focus on power rather than love. External manifestations such as tongues or being “slain in the Spirit” took center stage. Some took delight in the feeling of self-importance gained by prophesying over another. Authoritarian leadership reared its ugly head in many charismatic ministries. Leaders domineered, sometimes going so far as telling people whom they should marry. Somehow we forgot the Spirit’s essence–love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, goodness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). The plight of the poor and vulnerable didn’t get much press.  The glory departed.

The confusing thing about such a time is that what you see is sometimes of God and sometimes merely human. Some people genuinely did fall down under the Spirit’s power and some were pushed by over-zealous pray-ers presumably wanting to be seen as mighty, Spirit-filled men or women. And what about the one who prophesies or speaks in tongues? How does she know if what she’s about to say is of God, self or even the evil one? How do we discern God’s Spirit at all?

Ignatius of Loyola, a great spiritual leader of the past, gives us valuable advice. He suggests a delicate but profound image for what he calls “the discerning of spirits.” God’s Spirit, says Ignatius, comes to us like water dripping on a sponge. He enters quietly and easily through an open door. The evil one comes as water dripping on a stone.  Darkness enters only with clamour and noise because the door is closed to it. The dark power tries to break it down through fear, hurry and intimidation. Such is the case only if our heart’s orientation is toward God. Our experience is exactly the opposite if our heart’s disposition is to self. That is, we experience the darkness as silently entering because the door is open to it. In such a state, God’s presence is noisy and clattering because we have not aligned ourselves to him and hence we are not receptive to what he gives. Like welcomes like. 

The first step in aligning ourselves to God is having a right understanding of God’s nature i.e. good theology. That means coming to Jesus and learning that he is “gentle and humble in heart” and that he produces deep rest in our souls. The teaching he asks us to accept is easy; his burden is light (Mat. 11:28-30)–water gently falling on a sponge. If our God is harsh, we ourselves will tend to be harsh. God’s Spirit will hit our hearts like water on a stone. 

As soon as we talk about the peace and non-violence of Jesus, someone inevitably rushes to tell us about the injustices of the world. We need to be angry, to rise up and do something about them. But again, let’s look to Jesus and specifically what the coming of the Spirit did in his life. 

“Here is my chosen servant! I love him, and he pleases me.
I will give him my Spirit, and he will bring justice to the nations.
He won’t shout or yell or call out in the streets.
He won’t break off a bent reed or put out a dying flame,
but he will make sure that justice is done.
All nations will place their hope in him.”
Mat. 12:18:21

Jesus acted decisively to bring about justice, but he did it without clamouring to get attention, demanding his way or trampling on others, especially the weakest and most bruised souls. He tenderly cared for marginalized people whether the leper cast out of Jewish society or the woman considered unclean because of her bleeding. In fact, Jesus didn’t even trample on his enemies.  The term nations, used twice in the passage above, refers to Gentiles, Israel’s enemies, those who are on the outside and are despised by the “good people.” Jesus would rather die for his enemies than show any callousness to even the worst. He is the “social justice warrior” extraordinaire who triumphs absolutely, but he does it God’s way and in God’s Spirit. 

We cannot go through something like the Charismatic Renewal  without longing for more of God’s Spirit. Could it be that we don’t experience him as we would like because we’re opening our heart’s door to a false image of God? Have we created an idol of power or success or pleasure that we’re bowing down to? The Holy Spirit does bring power, but it’s not that we might be mesmerized by supernatural manifestations or exert dominance over others. As scripture tells us the power of the Spirit enabled Jesus to do good and to help those oppressed by the darkness (Acts 10:38). I am persuaded that it will be so for us.

Spiritual Formation

The Coronavirus and the Christian’s Vulnerability

Along with incalculable health and economic suffering, the coronavirus has also brought a reality check. We are not as secure as we imagined. Being well-fed and gadgeted to the max has lulled us into a dream-like state that hides an unpleasant truth–we will eventually lose everything. Beauty will fade, strength will diminish, our senses will grow dim, friends and family members will depart and finally life itself will slip away. Covid-19 slapped us in the face with our own mortality. This should especially sober the individual who has not thought much about what comes next. In this post, however, I want to talk to those of us who look forward to an eternity with Jesus. Have we considered that even after we become Christians the sense of vulnerability the coronavirus has reawakened is vital? Are we aware that without knowing our own weakness, we will not do well in God’s kingdom?

I don’t know about you, but everything in me recoils at the thought of being weak, poor in spirit or helpless. Furthermore, I feel that my Christian life is not going too badly. Oh I know I could do better, but, hey, “I’m only human.” All in all I’m doing the best I can and should be OK. But this laissez-faire attitude contrasts vividly with that of the apostle Paul as we see from his anguished cry in Rom. 7:14-25. “I do what I shouldn’t do and I don’t do what I should do. I’m helpless in the face of what’s going on inside. My body holds me a prisoner to its desires. Who will deliver me from the fate of this death?” Paul’s status quo disturbed him big time.ConversionStPaul

How can it be that I think I’m doing better than the man who established Christianity all over the ancient world and wrote about half the NT? The answer to that question is actually quite simple. I don’t fix my eyes on Jesus.  I do think of him quite often actually, but not enough to keep the essence of his kingdom–grace, nonviolence, peace, love–firmly set in my mind. From others I know, I take it I’m not alone.

We live with our own version of Christianity and if we set our standards low enough, the Christian life is a breeze. It’s like the story of the man driving in the country who noticed a barn with arrows stuck all over its side with each arrow dead center in the middle of its target. So impressed with what he saw, the man pulled into the driveway to meet such a talented archer. The farmer told him it was really nothing. The secret was to paint the target around the arrow after he’d shot it. In a similar fashion, we construe the goal of the Christian life as being roughly where we already are. O we know in the next life things will be different, but we’re getting through OK until that glorious time. However, that’s not aiming for the target. It’s not earnestly pursuing the kingdom where the Father’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Nowhere is the high nature of the Christian’s calling better displayed than in Jesus’  Sermon on the Mount. Take just a couple of examples: “Rather than hate your enemy like others have said, I say to you, love your enemies” (Mat. 5:43-48). So who is your enemy? a boss who belittles you? a spouse who betrayed you?  a supposed friend who gossips about you? Maybe the terrorists who blow innocent people up in an attempt to destroy our society? The latter would definitely qualify as enemies, but surely God doesn’t expect us to love suicide bombers? That seems to be exactly what Jesus meant. When he spoke about loving one’s enemies, every one of his hearers knew precisely who he was talking about, the Romans. They occupied their Jewish homeland. An enemy every bit as terrorizing as today’s suicide bombers, the Romans often sought to inflict as much pain as possible while executing a condemned individual. They sawed their victims in half, burned them alive and crucified them in a particularly slow, agonizing death. Love your enemies? I feel violated if I don’t immediately get my money back for an internet subscription I’ve cancelled! The kind of love Jesus requires is simply not humanly possible.

He doesn’t stop with talk of enemies, however. What he says about those much closer to us startles us just as much. Being angry with a brother or sister is akin to . . . murder (Mat. 5:21-22)! When we let Jesus’ words sink in, they become a sharp sword that pierces to our core (Heb. 4:12). They illuminate every trace of human anger, the source of so much evil including murder. The motions of my heart stand out in stark contrast to Jesus’ nonviolent kingdom. I get angry when “politically correct” people don’t believe what I believe. I get irritated when I’m interrupted. Anger manifests itself in countless human interactions–sarcastic humour at someone’s expense, gossip, competitiveness to the point of anger if we don’t win, envying such that we wish for another’s loss, excluding someone from our circle, blaming scapegoats for our own problems, trampling others because we’re not getting our way etc. 

We put up with hatred and anger because we’re used to them, but not so Paul. Rather than allowing such emotions to blend into the background of a spiritually sleepy life, he was wide awake and alert to their danger. So strong is their influence, Paul called it a law, that of  of sin in his members (Rom. 7:23).  “When I want to do good,” he laments, “evil is present with me” (Rom. 7:21). So why was Paul so aware of his shortcomings? Did he just have an oversensitive conscience, a melancholic personality? Was Paul a particularly bad person? Maybe he just needed to lighten up a bit? 

No, the reason he had such a crystal clear vision of his own shortcomings is that he also had a crystal clear vision of the love of Jesus. In fact, it had been poured into his heart through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). Here’s the great paradox, the closer we get to the Light, the more our darkness shows up and the more potential there is to be bothered by it. Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out in anguish because his defects and weakness stand out so starkly in Jesus’ presence.

That’s Romans 7. The scene changes dramatically in the next chapter where everything is turned upside down. Despite how wrong things may be in our inner world, Jesus’ goodness is greater than our badness! God lavishes this goodness upon us in the gift of the Spirit of Jesus–that same Spirit we encountered in the Sermon on the Mount which enables us to love even our enemies. The secret Paul tells us repeatedly is to rigorously keep focused on it–to walk after the Spirit (Rom. 8:4), to set our minds on the Spirit (Rom. 8:5-6), to put to death sinful acts by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13) and to be led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14).

In conclusion, if we don’t fix our eyes on Jesus and what he has to say, we won’t feel any great shortfall in our walk with God. We will be like the man James talks about who looks into “the perfect law of liberty” and by doing so understands his true nature and calling. However, like a man walking away from a mirror, he goes his way and immediately forgets his higher self (James 1:23-25).

As I’ve mentioned, seeing the higher means seeing the lower as well. There is of necessity anguish as we come close to God and his light shows up what’s inside, but we can take courage. We can admit our weakness, our sins, our vulnerability. This same love, kindness and goodness that we fall so short of is embodied in the Person with whom we have to do and he extends all this grace fully to us. Not only that, he promises to put it right inside!

Spiritual Formation

God Shows Up in Old Age: The Story of Simeon

Luke 2:25-35 

It had been revealed to him that before he died, he would see the Messiah. But as he grew older, he began to doubt. “Time is running out. Have I deceived myself?” In his weaker moments a sneering thought would whisper, “What makes you think some big thing is going to happen to you? Do you think you’re better than everyone else?” 

But then there were many times of being nourished by a sense of divine love. Something positive was going to happen. Something positive was happening–inside. And it kept leading him on and on, hoping and waiting and praying.

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When he first laid eyes on them, they seemed like any other young couple Simeon had seen dedicating a male child in the temple.  He’d been there day after day for years. But then he took a second look at them. Something about this family was different. They moved with quietness. They had a peace that drew him.

Simeon gazed at the newborn, then again. He looked a third time. Yes, it was true. The feeling got stronger every time. He looked again and this time savoured what he felt, a blending of pure goodness and sheer power. It smelled like the overwhelming love he’d come to know in the best of his prayer times. He was now transfixed on the baby and all the time the feeling was getting stronger and stronger. His gut was moved and his eyes watered. Not thinking about what he was doing he walked deliberately toward the couple and with authority took the baby from the mother’s arms and prophesied, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, dismiss your servant in peace!” Then he lifted Jesus up in the air and with a sweet, delicious smile proclaimed, “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

The voice was true–the voice he’d associated all these years with goodness and love . His doubts vanished. He had seen the Messiah.

Spiritual Formation

WHAT ABOUT PEOPLE IN OTHER RELIGIONS?

Let me begin by affirming that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and that no one comes unto the Father except by Him. (John 14:6)  His is the only name given whereby we can be saved. The question we will explore in this post regards ‘how’ an individual can be brought to faith in Christ.  Specifically, we will consider those individuals who, through whatever circumstances, were never clearly presented with the gospel of Jesus Christ before they died.  Or, perhaps they were never presented with the gospel in a way that allowed them to hear it e.g. Jewish people who were relentlessly persecuted by those supposedly telling them the good news! Can such a one be saved?

God’s Progressive Dealing with His Old Testament People  

Human beings dwell in darkness.   God is light. Spiritual awakening comes as we encounter the light of God. In our darkness we are not even aware of what is wrong with us.  Therefore, God’s first step in revelation is to make us aware of the fact that there is a problem and what the nature of that problem is. The Jews were given the Law of Moses, not to save them for by the works of the law shall no one be justified (Gal. 2:16), but to give them the knowledge of their sin (Romans 3:20).  Paul says he would not have known what coveting was except the law said, “You shall not covet” (Rom. 7:7). Conscience functioned in the same way for the Gentiles (i.e. all those in any religion other than Judaism), that is to make them aware of sin (Rom. 2:14-15).

Now it is abundantly clear that before a person can know a solution, he must first know what the problem is.  Therefore, it was not until this initial light had been given, that God could bring forth the answer- the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.  With it came the knowledge that our good works are not able to bring us into right standing with God. But it was necessary for God to first point out that mankind’s works were evil.  Once armed with this knowledge, the natural thing for those who desire to please God is to try to do good and avoid evil. As stated above this is not enough, but what happens to the person who dies before he knows his good works are not adequate or that Jesus came to save him?  He has not come into this more mature knowledge so has not put away childish things. Does God condemn a man or woman on the basis of the light they never received? Scripture seems to consistently affirm that we are judged, not on the basis of knowledge we do not have, but on the basis of our faith in God.  Jesus brings us along the path of life, as we are able to be led by him. The Shepherd of love “gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (Isa. 40:11) Each one is given increasing knowledge of God as he o she is able to receive it until they can heartily accept Christ.

Let us survey biblical passages that indicate this principle of progressive revelation as it pertains to the non-Christian.  Perhaps the most obvious example is that of God’s Old Covenant people. God first gave the revelation of himself to Abraham from whom came the nation of Israel.  Next the law was given to Moses as a deeper revelation of divine things. However, in New Testament times, Paul clearly tells us in Galatians 3:23-25 that the Law was like a schoolmaster to bring us to faith in Christ.  So the Law, with its animal sacrifices was unable to save anyone. Hebrews 10:4 tells us most definitely that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. “How then were the Jews saved? The next chapter, Hebrews 11, leaves us in no doubt that they were saved by faith, faith in God and what he had promised.  So we see in God’s dealings with Israel a progression. First Abraham received the covenant of circumcision. Then, Moses received the Law and finally the Jewish people were brought to the glorious revelation of Christ. God brought more light and more knowledge, but from start to finish they were saved by faith (Rom. 1:17). 

The Gentiles that Lived Before Christ.  

Rom. 2:14-15 speaks of the Gentiles instinctively obeying the Law even though they didn’t have it.  We learn that for them, the law of conscience functioned as the Law did for the Jews. Someone may object to this by pointing to Rom. 3:19-20 and saying, “Yes the conscience functioned like the Law, to bring all under the conviction of sin, to prove all guilty.”  However we are still faced with the question then of how the Jews were saved. Clearly, though the Law brought them under condemnation, they were still saved through faith in the promises of God they had received. Why would the Gentiles who were convicted of sin by conscience not be given the same privilege as the Jews who were convicted of sin by the Mosaic Law? The main thrust of this passage in Romans 2 is to point out that there is no difference between the Jews who had the Law and the Gentiles who didn’t.

Not only did the Gentiles have the light of conscience, God was manifest to them through nature.   Creation proclaims the glory of God (Ps.19:1; 97:6) Invisible things about God are understood by created things, even his eternal power and Godhead so that no person is without excuse (Rom. 1:20).  In Acts 14:17, Paul, in speaking to Gentiles claims that God has shown His goodness by “giving rain from heaven and crops in their seasons” and by providing plenty of food and filling their hearts with joy. Somehow I can’t picture God blessing and filling with joy without at the same time giving the opportunity for the greatest blessing – salvation through faith.    Would he be capable of leading people along in this way, getting their hopes up by blessing them, when all along he has planned to damn them when they step through eternity’s gates?

God’s Progressive Dealing with the Gentiles

We have already seen that God dealt progressively with the Jewish people.  Now let’s consider this principle with regard to the Gentiles. In Acts 10we encounter the story of the Gentile Cornelius.  In verse 2 we are told that he was God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. In vs. 4 we see that God accepted this as a ‘memorial offering’.  Peter states as clearly as possible that “God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (vs. 34-35). Though all our works may be as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6), God, in his mercy, accepts our bumbling efforts to serve him.  His response to Cornelius’ prayers and gifts was to bring him into the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. One may wish to argue that this is always the pattern – that where any faith in God is expressed, God will lead that person to Christ. This is true; the only question is again how they come to that faith.  For now though, the point of the Cornelius episode is to demonstrate that God brings Gentiles also along the path of progressive revelation.

In Acts 17 we see this principle illustrated again when Paul preaches to the Athenians.  He tells them in vs. 30 that in the past God overlooked such things as their idolatry but now he commands all men everywhere to repent.  Clearly, Paul is saying that there are at least two distinct stages in God’s dealings with mankind. Prior to Christ, God did not have the same expectation of people as he did afterward.  Now the question arises, “Does he mean after Jesus’ coming he commands all people, regardless if they have heard of him or not to repent?” or, “Does he mean, that after an individual has heard of Christ through the proclamation of the gospel he or she is responsible to repent?”

Gentiles Saved in the Old Testament

Before we attempt to answer that question, it should be pointed out that there are numerous instances of Old Testament Gentiles who are saved. Right in the list of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 we find the Gentile Rahab mentioned.  She escaped judgment because she exercised faith in hiding the spies. If it is argued that she then joined the nation of Israel, this changes nothing. It does not say she was saved because she became a Jew, but because, as a Gentile, she exercised faith.

Rahab is not alone.  Of course, before Abraham, there were no covenant people of God.  Adam, Abel, Enoch, Noah etc. were not part of the Abrahamic covenant.  They were saved by faith (as also were those of the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant and the New Covenant.)

Job is seen as righteous before God even though he clearly was not a Jew.  In Gen. 20 God shows himself to be evidently in relationship to Abimelech. God displays His care for the Ninevites by sending Jonah to preach repentance to them.  Jeremiah tells us that any nation that repents will be delivered from destruction (Jer. 18: 7-8).

Was Salvation More Plentiful Before Christ?

So it is clear that, as Paul says God ‘winked at” religious error before Christ and therefore both Jews, who had the Law, and Gentiles who had the law of conscience, could be saved according to the faith that they exercised.  If we now say that after Christ, only those who explicitly accept him through the preaching of the gospel in this life will be saved, we have a serious problem. We are saying that it would be better for most people who have lived after Christ’s coming to have been born before he came because most people never heard of him.  If they had only lived before Christ, they might have had a chance, but now there is none.  This means his coming into the world cut off the possibility of salvation for millions of people.  But this directly contradicts the scriptures which read, “For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn. 3:18).  The angel’s declaration to the shepherds is anything but “good news of great joy to all people” (Luke 2:10). Rather, it is the most horrifying message imaginable, since now most of them will be cut off without ever hearing about this one who was born in a manger to save them.

Does Predestination Solve the Problem?

People who hold this view must defend it on the basis of predestination, that is, God predetermines everything. Some are in; some are out. If you heard the gospel and became a Christian, it’s because you were predestined to. If you never heard about Jesus, it’s because you were predestined for damnation. However, this position makes a mockery of all the scriptures that suggest we really do have an opportunity to accept Jesus. When the Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life,” (John 3:16) it really means it. I can’t mean, “If you’re a chosen one, you’re OK and if you’re not, you’re damned.” 

God doesn’t play games and secondly, God loves everyone and wants as many people as possible in his kingdom. To maintain that God damns everyone to hell regardless of whether they have heard the Gospel or not is to bring the character of God into serious disrepute.  As one theologian put it, this kind of thinking “manages to make bad news out of good news. It casts a deep shadow over the character of God. At its worst, it can lead to awful consequences in terms of pride, arrogance, superiority, and intolerance as the ideology of election takes hold.  It causes the church to become, not a sign of the unity of humanity in the love of God, but the sign of favourites in the midst of the enemies of God.” Is God’s mercy great enough to save a child-molester-murderer if he repents, but not great enough to save a person who exercises faith and tries to live for God the best he can but never heard the gospel?

It must be admitted that there are scriptures that appear to back up the idea that God predestines some and not others. However, one essential principle for interpreting the Bible is the rule that we interpret what we don’t know in light of what we do know. In this case, I do know that God offers salvation freely to all and I know that we have free will to accept it. Furthermore, we all act like we do have free will. If someone hits you in the face, you hold them to account that they could have chosen to do otherwise. I don’t know or understand predestination. Whatever predestination means, it is entirely within God’s view and no one else’s. Maybe God has some way beyond our human intelligence to predestine us even though we also have free will, but there’s no way for us to understand that. What we do know is that we have the opportunity to accept or reject Jesus now.

Is There Any Motivation to Preach then?

Allow me to deal with one common objection that is often raised to the sort of position I am taking.  “If people in other religions have the possibility of being saved, then there is no motivation to evangelize them.”  We should note that this is also a problem if you take the position of predestination. Why should we preach if everyone is predestined anyway?

There are three points I would like to raise in response.  Firstly, when the first Christians came into being, they preached with exceeding zeal to a people who already had the possibility of salvation, namely, the Jews. Secondly, the motivation for the first Christians to preach was the glorious revelation of Christ.  The love of God given to them was so glorious that the Old Covenant had no glory at all by comparison (2 Cor. 3: 7-11). They were motivated by the wonderful freedom that the love of God brought them into. Thirdly, consider the lot of those outside of Christ. They have no assurance of salvation and the favour of God. Living in uncertainty with regard to absolute questions of life and death means one can never be totally free. As Hebrews say, all our lifetime we were held in slavery by our fear of death (2:15). It was only the gospel that gave us the possibility of being liberated from it. The eternal destiny of those outside Christ is up to God; our responsibility is to love them and to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.

Conclusion

In conclusion then, I wish to affirm three principles concerning God’s love.  Firstly His love causes him to reach out to all human beings with the offer of mercy and salvation.  “All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). Rom. 5:18 tells us that Christ brings the possibility of justification to all men.  God wills all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:3- 4). “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men…” (Tit. 2:11). God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9).  To say that only those fortunate enough to have come in contact with a Christian who preaches the gospel to them can be saved is to deny that God is offering salvation to everyone. This is not saying that all will be saved, but that all have the possibility of salvation.

Secondly, God brings everyone along the path that leads to “the Lamb upon the throne.”  Our light grows until we behold the glorious vision of the Son of God, until we see him face to face.  If there is something that characterizes those who have never heard the gospel but will yet be saved, it is the willingness to accept Christ once they do hear of him.  Whether this happens just before death, or at the moment of death, I do not know. Somehow though, God, in His merciful kindness will bring all who trust in him to that marvelous day.

Lastly, the one thing God requires from a person in order for him or her to be saved is faith, not knowledge.  Because a person never has the knowledge of Christ, this does not disqualify him from heaven. To say that salvation is based on knowledge is akin to Gnosticism.  In my opinion, every person will be saved by the faith in God that they exercise, according to the knowledge of him that they have. That faith will ultimately lead them to Jesus Christ to be forgiven, cleansed and born anew of the Spirit of glory!

 

Spiritual Formation

Jesus in the Dark

A number of years ago a friend asked me to visit a woman dying of cancer in the hospital. Her sickness had begun as breast cancer, and now an ugly, tell-tale purple blotch crept from the top of her night gown to her shoulder. Chemotherapy had robbed her of all her hair. As I approached her room I wondered if she really wanted a pastor to see her. Or was my visit just the result of a desperate measure taken by an over-eager friend? I did not have to wait long to find out. Almost immediately, she asked me deep questions about finding peace with God. My friend and another woman had spent hours with her reading from the Bible and sharing the good news of Jesus, yet she felt no assurance in facing death and whatever came next. 

“Is there some special prayer I must say?” she asked with a bewildered look. At that moment I saw so clearly the stark reality of our human predicament—the need for something more than this world can give, and yet seemingly facing a silent universe.  

I used an illustration with her that I got from the great preacher, Spurgeon. He talks about the difference between the words, look and see. In a dark, windowless room you can look for the door, but you cannot see it–until someone turns on the light. 

I told this dying woman that her part was to look. If she kept seeking Jesus, he would cause her to see. I came back often to visit her, but week after week she felt no abiding peace. Finally, the doctors sent her home from the hospital as they could do nothing more for her. 

One day her husband called me and said he wanted me to come to their home as he believed she would die shortly. When I got there I found her incoherent at times, lapsing in and out of reality. She would reach out to pick and try to eat imaginary fruit from a tree. At one time she started speaking to me in her native Lithuanian language, unaware that I could not understand her. She clutched a six-inch wooden cross like a drowning woman grabbing a tiny piece of driftwood with no land in sight. Her husband told me she sometimes shook so badly at night he had to take the cross away for fear she would injure herself with it. Her violent shaking compelled him to sleep in another bed.

I prayed with her that morning and read scripture to her as did my friend later that day. No one knows exactly how or when, but sometime that day she finally saw. God came into her life in a wonderful way and gave her the peace she so desperately craved. The dramatic change stunned her unbelieving husband. “Whatever you people are doing,” he enthused, “keep it up!” As it turned out, she still had a number of weeks to live and from that day onward she never shook violently again. She no longer needed to clutch the cross. She was coherent and never lapsed in and out of an imaginary world. Once she turned her eyes to Jesus and fixed her gaze on him, she was no longer worried about herself. She desired only that her family would find Christ the way she had. Shortly before she died, she gathered as many family and friends as could be squeezed into her bedroom. We sang, read from the Bible, and prayed. I then had the privilege of baptizing her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Today, perhaps you find yourself unsure, bewildered, afraid and seemingly facing a silent universe. If so, remember something else Spurgeon said, “Jesus in the dark is just as good as Jesus in the light.” Your job is simply to look for him. If you keep doing so, you have his promise that sooner or later, you will see.

Spiritual Formation

A Little Lower than God! Part 7: Deepest Heaven, Deepest You

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Each of us is a kind of sovereign lord and, like all rulers, we have a territory we rule over. That territory is the inner space where we step back from the world to make decisions, imagine and create. Not even God himself trespasses there. As previously mentioned, he waits for us to invite him in. Having such authority is part of what it means to be created in God’s image.
We are, however, only an image of God, not God himself. As the picture projected onto a screen needs light in order to be seen, so we are only clearly the image of God when we invite the Light into this sacred inner space. When we do, our innermost being becomes the Holy of Holies, that place where God dwelt in Israel’s tabernacle in the wilderness.
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In Hebrews 9:19-28 the writer speaks of this tabernacle being a picture of heaven and then makes a most curious assertion–heaven itself needs to be purified! How can this be? I thought heaven by definition was pure. Whatever the mystery contained in all this, one thing is certain, there is a direct relationship between our deepest, truest nature and the heavenly realm. For our inner being to be cleansed, heaven needs to be cleansed. So Hebrews speaks virtually interchangeably of both heaven and the hearts of believers being sprinkled with the blood of Christ. c.f. Hebrews 10:22
So then, when we have invited Christ into our inner sanctuary, our hearts become a beachhead, part of God’s sovereign kingdom upon earth. We are called to protect this holy territory and to extend it out into the world by letting his love reign in our lives–family, work, community etc. The heavenly kingdom comes as God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Spiritual Formation

A Little Lower than God! Part 6: Cooperating with the Spirit

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The most exciting part of the Gospel is often understated, that is, that the cross and its accompanying forgiveness were a means to an end and not the end itself. The purpose for which Jesus died was that God’s Spirit could fully inhabit human beings once again. This is the great truth of Pentecost. When we think of the Spirit coming into us, do we play any role? “Surely God is sovereign,” some would say, “and does what he pleases. We can’t have anything to do with the Spirit’s arrival in our lives.”

Yet 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.

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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

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Spiritual Formation

A Little Lower than God! Part 5: Open the Door, then Close It!

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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. However, if I come to believe that Jesus only dwells beyond my conscious mind, my expectation of meaningful interaction with him will fade. I begin to believe I can’t 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 believing 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 lies beyond my consciousness is of no great practical value. The critical thing is  knowing that I can talk to him as one rational being to another. I can invite him into my ordinary thought life in any room of my house. 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.”

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Spiritual Formation

A Little Lower than God! Part 4: The Door to Your True Self

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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 circumstances 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.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.Gal. 5:1

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